US Undersecretary of State William Burns defended America’s military relations with Cambodia yesterday during a weekend visit to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The opposition party and human rights groups have criticized US support for the Cambodian military, which they accuse of playing a key role in the government’s suppression of citizens’ rights.
Mr Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leaders on Saturday, and yesterday he attended a ceremony at the National Museum marking the repatriation of Cambodian antiquities seized by US authorities from the black market.
“Any military relationship we conduct around the world is consistent with international law,” Mr Burns said during a brief press conference following the ceremony. “We are very mindful of concerns and we take those into consideration.”
Mr Burns said US support for foreign militaries in general focused on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.
Mr Burns said he also met with members of the opposition SRP, including lawmaker Mu Sochua.
Ms Sochua recently avoided a jail term for refusing to pay a $2,125 fine on a conviction for defaming the prime minister–a case denounced by critics as an attempt by the ruling CPP to stifle critics–but will instead have the fine cut from her parliamentary wages.
Asked whether judicial reform, and Ms Sochua’s case in particular, was raised during the meeting with the prime minister, Mr Burns said they “talked about the importance of the freedom of expression and its importance in the development of society.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that the party’s 40-minute meeting with Mr Burns focused on judicial reform, electoral reform and human rights.
“We told him the problems we encounter in our country and we asked them [the US government] to fulfill their duty,” he said, though the SRP did not ask for any particular action specifically from Washington. “We want the US and UN to help us push the government to improve the situation.”
Mr Sovann said the party also walked the undersecretary through the details of Ms Sochua’s case.
“This is not a private matter,” Mr Sovann said of Ms Sochua’s case. “This is to show the judiciary still needs reform.”
During Saturday’s meeting between Mr Hun Sen and Mr Burns, agricultural assistance to Cambodia was discussed, said Eang Sophalleth, an assistant to the premier. Mr Sophalleth also said the prime minister thanked the US for its help with matters including peacekeeping, antiterrorism efforts, human resources development, health, human rights and democratization.
In a prepared statement yesterday, Mr Burns called his meeting with the prime minister “productive,” but offered no details on what was discussed.
Calling the relationship between the US and Cambodia “the strongest it has ever been” yesterday, Mr Burns highlighted this month’s US-sponsored peacekeeping exercise in Cambodia, US financial support for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and Cambodia’s place in a US-led hunger-fighting agriculture initiative that will disburse $22 billion to 20 countries over the next three years.
Mr Burns also welcomed the recent passage of Cambodia’s new anticorruption law, which critics have said does not guarantee the independence of anticorruption authorities.
“We hope that implementing regulations will clarify and enhance the law’s aim to detect and punish corruption according to international standards and thereby deter acts of corruption which discourage foreign investment,” Mr Burns said. “We believe that a better informed citizenry and government will lead to solutions to this problem, solutions which are deeply in the self-interest of Cambodia.”
Earlier yesterday morning, Mr Burns presided over the return of seven ancient Khmer artifacts, ranging from an 11th Century sandstone sculpture of a male torso to a post-Angkorian horse ornament. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement recovered the items during investigations in 2004 and 2008.
“Returning these items is like returning the souls of Khmer ancestors to their bodies after dozens of years of separation and so reviving the bodies,” Culture Minister Him Chhem said during the handover ceremony.
Mr Chhem said the US government and private American citizens had returned a total of 27 artifacts to Cambodia to date.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)