Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cambodia-U.S. Tensions on the Rise

By: Kyle Saunders
Produced & edited by: Jacob Solether

Photo credit: Kyle Saunders

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. 

According to a Reuters report by Prak Chan Thul and Matthew Tostevin, the U.S. has touted its monetary aid in order to show dedication to Cambodia-U.S. relations. 

But, as Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told Reuters,“Taking aid doesn’t mean they can order us to do what 

they want. We aren’t their ally. We aren’t their slave.”

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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.”

The ruling party lost a significant number of seats in parliament five years ago in the last general election. Hun Sen has in the past expressed a desire to serve in his current role for another nine years, when he will be 74 years of age.

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.

Sony Ouch, a former writer at the Daily, said via email that reporting in Phnom Penh is more difficult than it was a short time ago. Since the Daily closed, he said, “We can’t use our old press cards…We can say there are a lot more local media outlets, but it is hard to find one that matched with the Daily.” This limitation on journalists indicates that the government’s supposed attempts to silence pro-democracy opposition are having an effect.

Ben Paviour is a freelance journalist and former writer for the Daily. In response to a question about the closure of pro-democracy organizations in Cambodia, he wrote, “
I think the closures had everything to do with the Cambodian government's sudden attack on U.S.-affiliated organizations and institutions. NDI (National Democratic Institute) was the first to go, the Daily came next, and RFA later, all while Fresh News and CPP politicians were ramping up rhetoric against the U.S. 
When people talk about the breakdown in relations, they're obviously talking about these closures, and the connection the government made between Kem Sokha and supposed U.S. groomers and patrons.” (Author’s Note: Fresh News is a pro-government news organization in Phnom Penh.)

Pheap Aun also worked as a writer for the Cambodia Daily, and believed that the Daily’s dispute with the government was about politics as well: “I think Hun Sen was worried about the upcoming election in 2018 because he would lose the election, so he now shut down the Daily and radio stations to stop the independent voice that published and televised the true information… foreign countries and the international community have learned factual information from the Daily and RFA.”

With so many pro-democracy voices being silenced by the government, U.S. efforts to reach Khmers are limited. 
While its Twitter campaign has received mixed reviews, the U.S.Embassy’s Facebook page has proven helpful in fostering conversation with Khmers, according to at least one native Khmer. 

Chakrya Lim, an employee in the private sector in Phnom Penh who has experience in international development, says the main problem with this situation is that primarily only “Cambodians with education know the Embassy page and follow” the updates it provides. The Embassy continues its social media efforts to reach more Khmers to boost perception of the U.S.

**Global Spotlight is a nonprofit educational production, constituting a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. 

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