This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. State Department won’t say why it unfroze US$18 million in aid to Cambodia suspended after the country’s election two months ago, which an official at the time called “neither free nor fair.”
Cambodia’s new prime minister, Hun Manet, met with acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday. He later released a statement applauding the aid resumption, and said Nuland had “welcomed the opportunity to enhance cooperation between the two countries.”
A spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party, which won 120 of 125 National Assembly seats the July 23 voter after again banning the opposition from running, then told a local newspaper the resumption “means that the U.S. has recognised the national election.”
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a briefing on Wednesday that he was unaware of the decision. The department’s media relations team declined to answer questions about the aid, and referred them to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
USAID told Radio Free Asia that the decision to unfreeze the $18 million after two months had been made after “extensive and candid dialogue between American and Cambodian government officials.”
“The programs we are resuming provide direct benefit to the Cambodian people by combatting the climate crisis and improving health outcomes,” a USAID spokesperson said in an email.
“In our engagements with the Government of Cambodia and Cambodian partners, we have underscored that this decision is part of our commitment to helping advance a brighter and healthier future for the people of Cambodia in a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country where all voices are heard,” they said.
However, the spokesperson did not explain what had changed in two months, or comment on the claim that the reversal means the United States now recognizes the results of Cambodia’s July 23 election.
A serious amount of money
On July 24 – the day after the election – Miller had told reporters the freezing of the $18 million was a big deal that would last beyond this year alone and said that it was being cut in direct challenge to the legitimacy of the elections.
“We were troubled that the elections themselves were neither free nor fair,” Miller said at a briefing. “Cambodian authorities engaged in a pattern of threats and harassment against the political opposition throughout the electoral process, denied the Cambodian people a voice and choice in determining their future of the country.”
“The [aid] restrictions will extend into future fiscal years,” he said. “It’s a serious amount of money both this year, and in coming fiscal years.”
There seemingly remains hope in the State Department that Hun Manet, a 45-year-old West Point graduate, may offer the United States a chance to reset ties with Cambodia, which have been hamstrung by U.S. criticism of Hun Sen’s violent rule and China’s rise.
The new premier was in New York last week for the U.N. General Assembly, and delivered his address to world leaders exactly a month after his appointment to the role following the resignation of his father, Hun Sen, who had ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades.
Hun Manet falsely claimed during the speech that the July 23 election was “free and fair,” and denied U.S. accusations that Cambodia was allowing China to build a military base on its southern coastline.
Reset of ties
On Wednesday, Hun Manet met with W. Patrick Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia. Murphy released a statement praising Hun Manet’s “productive engagements with U.S. officials” in New York and calling on him to pursue “an independent and balanced foreign policy.”
Murphy also noted that the resumption of U.S. aid was “critical to the health of the Cambodian people,” the statement said, but “emphasized the importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms as integral to our bilateral relationship.”
Before heading to New York, though, Hun Manet on Sept. 14 made his first official trip overseas as Cambodia to Beijing. Hun Sen also wrote a letter to Chinese Premier Li Qiang after July’s election promising ties between the countries “will not be changed” with his son in charge.
Seng Sary, a Cambodian political analyst granted asylum in Australia after he was ordered arrested in Cambodia, told RFA it was clear realpolitik was at play in the U.S. approach to Hun Manet, with the $18 million in unfrozen aid being the price of the ticket to be at the table.
“One thing that the United States wants for its political benefit,” Sary said, “is to not allow Cambodia to fall deeper into Chinese influence.”