U.S. officials are scrambling to win the approval of Khmers after tensions have flared between the U.S. and Cambodia. A video of opposition party leader Kem Sokha surfaced on social media earlier this month, apparently showing him receiving advice from U.S. sources. Kem Sokha was shortly thereafter arrested and accused of treason, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party claimed that Kem Sokha’s current efforts as opposition leader were backed by the U.S. government. That accusation has led to a rapid deterioration in trust between the two countries, and the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has taken to Twitter employing the hashtag #WhyWeAreHereKH to assure Khmer citizens that the U.S. has not turned its back on Cambodia.
The embassy’s Twitter account has directed attention toward U.S. goodwill projects in Cambodia that are designed to improve access to the arts, education, and technology for Khmers. Lyroth Chea, a native Khmer who studied at a university in Virginia and now works in public accounting in Phnom Penh, explains that the social media campaign isn’t working. “The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh is trying to make an impact with its social media campaign, but it is not significant. It is like a guy from a Western country trying to feed a Cambodian kid a cheeseburger, or a Cambodian guy trying to feed a European kid with rice. It is a metaphor of not understanding each other.”
This metaphor seems to be holding at the highest levels of government as well.
This rejection of perceived Western superiority has impacted the Cambodian government’s stance toward nongovernmental Western-oriented programs as well. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have both been shuttered and accused of acting as spies “in the dark” by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Jodie DeJonge was editor-in-chief of the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh until it recently found itself in a financial dispute over taxes and was forced to close. She believes that “the key reason the government wanted the Daily closed was to silence its journalism in the lead-up to next year's critical general election, the first in five years.”
Ms. DeJonge noted, “Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year described the Khmer reporters who worked for RFA and the Daily as ‘servants of the foreigners.’” While the pressure exerted on pro-democracy organizations such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the Cambodia Daily has seemingly been sudden, the Cambodian government’s rhetoric has shown increasing disdain for Western-oriented influences.
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