Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing

ABN # 65 648 097 123
Cambodia-U.S. Relations: Trust
in Democracy Deficit
Carlyle A. Thayer
August 25, 2017

We are preparing a report on the recent disputed between Cambodia and the United
States that has led to latest threat of a possible government-sponsored anti-U..S
protest in Phnom Penh.
The U.S.-owned newspaper The Cambodia Daily is facing closure over a huge tax bill;
the local office of the National Democratic Institute has been closed (their foreigner
staff have been expelled); while Cambodia has been sanctioned by Washington
We request your assessment of the following issued:
Q1- Do you think there is a historical trust deficit between Phnom Penh and
Washington that has lead to recent spat?
ANSWER: There is a trust in democracy deficit between Phnom Penh and Washington
that dates back to the early 1990s. Hun Sen initially was viewed in the United States
as an ex-Khmer Rouge figure who became an ally of communist Vietnam. The United
States supported the so-called non-communist resistance including the KPNLF [Khmer
People’s National Liberation Front]and FUNCINPEC during the period of Vietnam’s
Hun Sen was reviled for the events of 1997 which the U.S. viewed as a coup that led
to the murder of several parliamentarians and the collapse of the coalition
government elected in 1993. Since 1998, American political observers, non-
governmental agencies and U.S. government-funded institutes have been critical
about how elections have been conducted in Cambodia. U.S. congressmen and the
U.S. foreign policy establishment is naturally more at home with Sam Rainsy than with
Hun Sen. And during periods of coalition government in Cambodia, most U.S. actors
and agencies favoured FUNCIINPEC and now the Cambodian National Rescue Party.
Hun Sen’s style is to rule by law instead of rule of law. In other words, in Hun Sen’s
view laws in Cambodia, including the electoral law, should reinforce the Cambodian
People’s Party’s grip on power not the other way around. Hun Sen’s approach to
politics was anathema to the Obama Administration and to a wide circle of U.S.
government officials who naturally supported democracy.
Q2- What, do you think contributed to the recent deterioration of ties between the
two countries?

ANSWER: Hun Sen is the architect of deteriorating ties with the United States
especially in the period before and following this year’s communal elections. Hun
Sen’s failure to win a decisive victory in the commune election was the key trigger for
his latest anti-American actions. Hun Sen is aiming for a complete sweep next year
when national elections are scheduled. He wants to undermine the authority and
prestige of key opposition leaders. Hun Sen is using lawfare to weaken their
organizational structure and ties to pro-democracy associations and governments
abroad in Europe and North America. This explains his focus on Cambodian NGO’s and
the U.S. funded National Democratic Institute.
Q3- Do you think there is any geopolitical contribution to Phnom Penh's breaking away
from Washington?
ANSWER: Hun Sen can act with relative impunity against the United States because
China will provide a safety net. China maintains a policy of “non-interference in
internal affairs.” But this policy is not one of political neutrality. China does not
consider political, diplomatic and economic support for the Hun Sen regime as
interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. Hun Sen needs this support to stay in
power. He can direct Chinese assistance, loans and investment into areas that bolster
his regime and the CPP. Hun Sen has become adept at bandwagoning with Beijing by
uncritically supporting its policies in the region and in the South China Sea. This incurs
little or no domestic cost. And Chinese support serves as a buffer for the Hun Sen
regime against pressures from the United States.
Q4- Prime Minister Hun Sen at first showed his admiration of President Trump during
the election last year. The Trump's administration shows little attention to human
rights and global democracy. Why hasn’t this condition been conducive to a better
bilateral relationship?
ANSWER: President Trump has engendered heightened strategic uncertainty in
Southeast Asia about continual U.S. engagement in the region. President Trump has
so far demonstrated an alarming lack of strategic vision about the importance of
Southeast Asia and ASEAN to the United States. Cambodia has not shown the initiative
that Vietnam has in securign a meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister
Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Phuc was the first government leader from Southeast Asia to meet
Trump in The White House.
Because President Trump has demonstrated little interest in promoting human rights
and democratic processes Cambodia is off the hook. Why haven’t relations fared
better? Hun Sen has put Cambodia at the back of the queue. You can imagine the
difficulty any Trump adviser or Cabinet official would have in trying to promote a step
up in bilateral relations after the string of anti-American actions implemented by Hun
Sen. President Trump would want to know how better relations with Cambodia would
contribute to his America First and Make America Great slogans. If U.S. attention
suddenly focused on Phnom Penh, the special access the Cambodian garment industry
gets to the U.S. market might be put in jeopardy.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia-U.S. Relations: Trust in Democracy
Deficit,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 25, 2017. All background briefs

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other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
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