PM, US No2 diplomat talk debt, co-op, deportations

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) meets with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman on Tuesday. Information Ministry

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman on June 1 met with Prime Minister Hun Sen to discuss a range of issues including the possibility of cancelling Cambodia’s Lon Nol-era debt, and US investments in the Kingdom.

Sherman paid the courtesy call in a one-day visit as part of her first multinational tour. Before touching down in Phnom Penh, she made several other stops in countries ranging from Europe to Southeast Asia.

Hun Sen’s assistant Eang Sophalleth said that following the meeting, Sherman expressed her satisfaction with Cambodia’s cooperation and assistance regarding the search for the remains of US soldiers still missing in Cambodia as well as the two country’s joint counterterrorism efforts and the Kingdom’s international humanitarian assistance such as allowing the Westerdam cruise ship to dock amid the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020.

“Her Excellency Sherman also informed Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] about opportunities for further cooperation that could include the cancelling of Cambodia’s [Lon Nol-era] debt, cooperation on oil and gas and US investments in water, infrastructure, green energy and many other issues,” he said.

“Samdech Techo was glad about what Her Excellency mentioned and was thankful for what the US had contributed to helping Cambodia’s peaceful development both directly and indirectly through the World Health Organisation in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

He said Hun Sen also requested that the US review its policies on the deportation of convicted Cambodian Americans to the Kingdom – a reference to those who are slated to be deported while serving jail terms in the US for various crimes ranging from drug offences, auto theft, resisting arrest, robbery, forgery, child abuse, rape, aggravated assault and murder.

“Her Excellency will take this request to US president Joe Biden,” he said.

After the meeting, the US Department of State released a statement mentioning the assistance that the US had provided to Cambodia, including $11 million for the fight against Covid-19.

“She also noted productive cooperation with Cambodia on implementation of UN sanctions on [North Korea], child protection, UN peacekeeping, POW/MIA accounting, humanitarian demining, public health and education and other shared interests,” the statement said.

The statement said Sherman also “expressed serious concerns about China’s military presence and the construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand”.

“She sought clarification on the demolition of two US-funded buildings at Ream without notification or explanation and observed that a [Chinese] military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations.

“The Deputy Secretary urged Cambodia’s leadership to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people,” the statement said.

Sherman also touched on human rights and democracy in Cambodia and urged the reopening of civil and political space for the upcoming commune and national elections in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

She also held meetings with representatives from civil society – including former leader of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha – to discuss issues of shared importance with the US including ensuring a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign, and democratic future for Cambodia. She also briefly touched on the South China Sea issue.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said this is a good time to rebuild relations between the US and Cambodia.

He said bringing up Kem Sokha and human rights or the issue of Chinese military bases in the Kingdom accomplishes nothing and only “pours petrol on the flames”.

“This should be a time when the two countries mend their relations and restore trust rather than raise heated issues because it is counterproductive and it does not rebuild relations between the two countries,” he said.

“I think that topics like human rights or the case of Kem Sokha should not have been discussed. These topics get heated and are sensitive. If these topics continue to be raised, it means that she does not have [the administration’s backing] to restore relations or boost much-needed trust,” he added.