For the first time that either Cambodian or US Embassy officials could recall, a US Congressman observed the government’s celebrations of the day in 1979 that Vietnamese-backed forces drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh.
Seated prominently just meters from Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top CPP officials, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega–a non-voting representative from the US territory of American Samoa–took in the celebrations at the ruling CPP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh.
Afterwards, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun welcomed the congressman’s presence as a show of US support.
“This shows the US has turned its boat hard in our direction, so our 31 years of hard work under the control of the three Samdechs has taken our boat on the right path, extending the relationship with every country, especially the US, which is a difficult country, and has come and celebrated our Jan 7,” Mr Vun told reporters at the National Assembly where Mr Hun Sen met with Mr Faleomavaega and two other US congressmen.
“This is such a big sign,” Mr Vun added. “The next generation should remember this. Don’t let anyone change history.”
At a news conference later in the day, Mr Faleomavaega, currently on a “fact finding mission” of Southeast Asia and Japan with fellow Congressmen Joseph Cao and Mike Honda, said he saw nothing divisive about attending the January 7th ceremony.
“I don’t see why this issue should be something that is polarizing in terms of basically how you interpret history,” Mr Faleomavaega said. “As far as I’m concerned, today’s celebration was to celebrate the removal of Pol Pot’s regime…. I think that’s something that we should celebrate.”
In 1979, however, the US reacted to Pol Pot’s overthrow by imposing severe sanctions on Cambodia while insisting that the Khmer Rouge, pushed back to its jungle redoubts in the northwest, continue to represent the country at the UN. The US refused to recognize the new government in Phnom Penh, which included Mr Hun Sen and many other current CPP officials, for years, considering it a puppet of Hanoi.
Many Cambodians also remember January 7 more for the start of Vietnam’s 10-year occupation of the country, and a political ploy to diminish the importance of Oct 23, 1991, when the Paris Pease Agreements effectively ended decades of civil war.
Mr Cao and Mr Honda did not attend the CPP celebrations, citing a tight schedule. On their first visit to Cambodia, the pair spent the morning touring the killing fields at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum instead.
Last September, Mr Faleomavaega expressed support for Mr Hun Sen’s government during a hearing on Cambodia’s human rights record in Washington. While SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua blasted the Cambodian government on a long list of rights violations, Mr Faleomavaega chastised the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights commission for not failing to hear the Cambodian government’s side.
Mr Faleomavaega repeated those concerns yesterday.
“In my opinion, it was very inappropriate to invite a political leader from a foreign country and come to America and criticize his own government,” he said. “When any of our representatives or senators go to foreign countries we never criticize our own government. If you got something to say about your government, go back home and battle it out politically.”
Mr Cao, a member of the Lantos commission, had a decidedly different impression.
Less than a month after the hearing, Mr Cao co-sponsored a resolution in the US House of Representatives that accused the Cambodian government of the “murder of opposition candidates” and using a corrupt judicial system to silence critics.
Asked for his opinion of the resolution, Mr Faleomavaega instead launched into a civics lesson on the US’ system of political checks and balances and the country’s own history of human rights abuses.
“We are not a perfect democracy by any means,” he said. “My god, it took America 150 years to grant the right to vote among black Americans.”
Asked about Cambodia’s recent deportation of Uighur asylum seekers back to China, Mr Faleomavaega said the issue was raised with CPP leaders, but only lightly.
“We discussed the issue,” he said. “But it was not to the point where I felt it would be inappropriate and unfair to put the good leaders of Cambodia to have an opportunity to more substantively take up this issue with our Secretary of State and leaders of the White House so that we can ourselves figure out exactly what happened here.”
The three Congressmen landed in Siem Reap on Tuesday and spent the next day touring the temples of Angkor Wat. After arriving in Phnom Penh and going their separate ways yesterday morning, they reconverged for a meeting with Mr Hun Sen and a lunch with the ministers of Commerce, Finance and Foreign Affairs.
Avoiding any details, the men said they discussed bilateral trade issues and revisited Cambodia’s longstanding request that the US cancel more than $300,000,000 in debt from US credit offered to the Lon Nol regime of 1970 to 1975.
Eang Sophalleth, an assistant to Mr Hun Sen, said Mr Faleomavaega agreed to raise the Lon Nol debt issue with his fellow congressmen back in Washington.
According to Mr Sophalleth, “he said he will think and talk with the other people in the Congress about the debt.”
The trio also met briefly yesterday with representatives of the SRP and Human Rights Party.
Though SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said his party was given no advance notice of the delegation’s trip, he welcomed the visit.
“The more they come to Cambodia, the more they will learn from our people, who suffer from corruption and illegal land grabbing,” he said. “We asked them to learn more about that before he gives any view of Cambodia publicly,” Mr Sovann added.