Before, during and since the July 26 elections, the ruling CPP and the opposition have waged an intense public-relations war for support from the US.
Before the elections, the CPP hired consultants at a reported $500,000 to recast the party’s image abroad. About a month after the polls, an adviser to CPP President Chea Sim pled to the US State Department to endorse the election to “avoid the collapse of the current democratic process.” And most recently, the CPP has lashed out at a US resolution condemning Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The opposition’s public relations campaign, meanwhile, started soon after Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted as first prime minister in the bloody street battles of July 1997. Post-election protests at so-called Democracy Square were peppered with pro-US rhetoric such as banners that read in English and Khmer: “America is the only hope for the Cambodian people.” And, most recently, opposition leader Sam Rainsy toured the US, lobbying congressmen and appearing on Voice of America to talk about alleged election fraud and violence against opposition demonstrators.
Why the fuss over a country that gives far less direct aid to Cambodia than Japan?
Experts say it’s because of a number of tangible, intangible and even symbolic factors, including the US’ superpower status and its influence in the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the international donor community in general.
For example, by virtue of being the largest contributor to the World Bank and IMF, the US holds the highest voting power—about 15 percent. While that does not give the US veto power, “it may be able to influence [others] behind the corridors,” said one source knowledgeable about the process.
The World Bank, which provides development assistance, is in various stages of discussion with the government concerning multimillion-dollar road, village and social development projects.
The IMF, which provides balance of payments assistance, hasn’t made loans to Cambodia since 1996 because of the government’s failure to control corruption. But the government at any time could invite the IMF to re-examine the progress of policy and management reforms.
The US, pro-democracy experts note, also has been consistently critical of Cambodian affairs.
“It’s one of the most vocal countries in opposing any undemocratic action in Cambodia,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “If Cambodia can get the green light from the US, they basically get the green light to go ahead with many other things.”
Conversely, without that green light, life can be tough for Cambodia’s political leaders who rely on international aid for roughly half of the government budget.
The current rift between the two countries is reflected in government statements and Khmer-language newspapers, which often act as political mouthpieces.
Two weeks ago, a top senior government official was quoted by the leading Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper as saying Cambodia couldn’t guarantee the personal security of American and British journalists. Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith threatened to shut down two English-language newspapers, including The Cambodia Daily, and expel American and British journalists.
Later in the week, a government official said the government would soon launch a counter-campaign to the “disinformation” coming out of Washington. That counter-campaign now includes a 45-page white paper blaming opposition leaders for provoking violence as a part of a post-election tactic.
And pro-CPP newspapers have accused America’s Central Intelligence Agency of being involved in last month’s B-40 rocket attack on a CPP motorcade in Siem Reap, and of the US “poking its hand deeply into the intestine, heart and liver of Cambodia” by nourishing the opposition and protecting its activists.
Complicating matters in recent weeks is the belief by some government officials that the US has been protecting opposition activist Kem Sokha from being questioned about his role in the recent opposition demonstrations. US Embassy officials have refused to comment on the issue.
Much of the Cambodian government’s ire has been caused by a US House resolution sponsored by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher that condemns Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and calls for an investigation of his alleged crimes against humanity.
In the US, such a resolution reflects only an opinion, has no force of law and therefore is largely insignificant. But such inner workings of the US Congress have been confusing to Cambodians, and critics say the opposition has used that confusion to fan the flames.
It has only been in the past week or so that the government has taken a more relaxed attitude, while still reacting angrily to Rohrabacher’s attempts to topple Hun Sen.
“No one blames the US,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said recently, noting the government knows the resolution is only an opinion.
Yet, in a confidential letter to party leaders, CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum asked the party to prepare for possible mass demonstrations against the Rohrabacher resolution.
The US government itself has tried to distance itself from the Rohrabacher resolution, saying in a recent statement that the US State Department does not support it. In fact, in some post-election remarks, former congressman Stephen Solarz and a former Asian ambassador, James Lilley, suggested that the US wants to keep Cambodia engaged in the international community, with the hopes that gradual pressure over time will secure a democracy.
“It’s a matter of the principles of democracy and, of course, it promotes America’s interests,” said Kao Kim Hourn.
The US has been applying pressure to Cambodia in the only ways it can, according to democracy-building experts.
For example, Stanley Roth, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said earlier this month that the US would oppose reinstating the UN seat for Cambodia and direct aid until a government is formed that includes the opposition in a “meaningful role.”
The Roth statement, diplomats say, much more accurately reflects US policy than the Rohrabacher resolution.
A Phnom Penh diplomat said recently that Roth’s statement could be taken two ways. “My feeling is that it could be a warning to the Cambodian government” that aid really will be withheld unless the opposition parties are given some positions of real power in a coalition.
Or it could simply be that the US administration is trying to give the US Congress and Cambodia the impression that it is tough, knowing already full well that it must resume aid and support the UN seat to keep Cambodia engaged in the international community, the diplomat said.
“But I’m afraid that Cambodia only understands it as interference in its internal affairs,” the diplomat said.
Indeed, the combination of Rohrabacher, Roth, Rainsy, Prince Ranariddh and some recent statements by two US senators condemning post-election violence seem to have put the Cambodian government on the defensive.
Hun Sen has indicated that he sees the US as lending a sympathetic ear to the opposition complaints, while most of the rest of the international community accepted the election results as essentially free and fair.
“This is a unique case in the world when the losers hold the winner, the Cambodian nation and the international community hostage to their irrational allegations and demands,” Hun Sen recently wrote to two US senators.
Asean also recently said it is waiting for an acceptable government to be formed before deciding on whether or not to admit Cambodia.
How the tension between the US and Cambodia will be resolved is anybody’s guess, but it will probably hinge on the success of the coalition talks, diplomats say.
“In a normal democracy, losers accept the results,” said one diplomat. “This is nonsense. The country cannot go on like this anymore.”
The pro-CPP Chakraval newspaper recently indicated what the worst scenario could be, in article accusing the US of helping the opposition.
“As America pokes its hand deeply into the intestine, heart and liver of Cambodia, then the many new government supporters… may drive away the American embassy from Cambodia, or could lead Cambodia to become like Burma,” the newspaper wrote.
But most seem to hold to the opinion that eventually the new government will be formed, and the relations between the US and Cambodia will return to what they were like before the latest tiff erupted.
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