Fearful that Prime Minister Hun Sen “may be turning Cambodia into the next Burma,” US and Vietnamese officials held a number of meetings in 2005 and 2006 during which they discussed how best to influence the country in order to counter China’s growing role, diplomatic cables released by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks show.
In several discussions between Vietnamese leaders and visiting US officials, the two sides outlined a growing need for renewed engagement with Mr Hun Sen, while one senior official in Hanoi lamented that the premier no longer listened to Vietnam, according to the cables, which were released last week.
The half-dozen diplomatic cables, a small fraction of the thousands that have been released by WikiLeaks since last year, paint a picture of an increasingly frustrated Vietnam, unable to exert the influence it once had over Mr Hun Sen as he grows more powerful and politically savvy, particularly in his relations with China.
During a February 2006 meeting with US Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Clerk Paul Grove, Vietnamese officials complain of having lost their stake in Cambodia to China.
“Hun Sen does not listen to Vietnam,” Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang is quoted in the cables as saying.
“Vietnam has no leverage, China, however, has leverage—and thus Hun Sen’s ear. Regardless, Vietnam will continue to press Cambodia to act responsibly,” he adds.
Talk of an irresponsible Cambodia pervades the conversations between the US and Vietnamese officials.
In a 2005 meeting, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan tells US State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Eric John: “The situation in Cambodia is ‘very serious,’ and the world community should seek ways to encourage Cambodia to develop in the right way to secure peace, stability and prosperity.”
Concerns in 2005 and 2006 about Cambodia and Mr Hun Sen appear to be related to the arrest of opposition members and government critics at that time.
In 2005, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, along with SRP parliamentarian Chea Poch, were charged with defamation; both fled Cambodia after the National Assembly stripped them of parliamentary immunity. Mr Rainsy was later sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. Another SRP lawmaker, Cheam Channy, was also stripped of immunity and sentenced to seven years in jail by the Military Court.
Despite the perceived volatility of the situation in Phnom Penh at that time, officials in both Hanoi and Washington appear to recognize the importance of approaching Cambodia with a deft touch.
In discussions in early 2006 with US Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Clerk Paul Grove, Foreign Ministry Director General Do Ngoc Son beseeched Washington to tread lightly in Cambodia.
“[Mr Son] cautioned that, if the United States continues to harp on human rights, HIV/AIDS and corruption in Cambodia, it will be forced to withdraw from Cambodia the way it has with Burma, thus abdicating all influence to China,” the cable notes.
“Grove acknowledged that Hun Sen is a complex and complicated leader, and that the United States cannot walk away from Cambodia without allowing China to fill the vacuum,” the cable continues.
Throughout their conversations, China looms a large threat.
During a February meeting with Vietnam’s Le Van Bang, the US’ Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill is told: “China has been infusing Cambodia with cash, including a recent $13 million non-condition gift, that demonstrates its growing influence there.”
To offset their influence, Mr Ban recommends, Washington should consider extending an invitation to Mr Hun Sen.
“He [Mr Bang] further suggested that building comfort level of communication and inviting Hun Sen to visit the United States could help strengthen the US message,” the cables state.
But whether either country truly expected to get their desired foothold is uncertain.
“[Vietnam’s Assistant Foreign Minister Son] observed wryly that Hun Sen is very shrewd and listens to Vietnam only when it is both convenient and profitable for him to do so,” reads a Feb 2006 US cable.
“Hun Sen is also very capable of manipulating his neighbors and other countries in the region, Son said,” according to the cables.