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When Hun Sen meets Biden at ASEAN

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BANGKOK — President Biden greets Cambodia’s war-toughened Prime Minister Hun Sen at a November 12-13 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh amid US Magnitsky Act sanctions and feuding about China’s presence at Cambodian ports along the Gulf of Thailand.

“Hun Sen would like President Biden to be mute, deaf, and blind on democracy, human rights, and freedom in Cambodia,” Arizona State University professor Sophal Ear, a Cambodia-born author on the Southeast Asian country, said in an interview.

“Hun Sen wants the US to accept Cambodia the way he runs the country, namely to accept Cambodia’s choice of partners in China, and to accept that what is going on politically in Cambodia is just Cambodia’s internal affairs and none of the US’s business,” Sophal Ear said.

Hun Sen often projects a pugnacious image when dealing with the US, but mellows his tone when praising China, which has showered the impoverished nation with investments and projects in recent years.

“Biden is likely to arrive with at least two priorities in mind – cautioning Hun Sen not to become too dependent on China and easing up on his political opposition,” Craig Etcheson, an author on Cambodia, said in an interview.

“The US will be watching China’s involvement in Cambodia closely, and should continue with its current policy of a judicious mix of inducements and pressures,” Etcheson suggested.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced on October 28: “In Cambodia, he [Biden] will reaffirm the United States’ enduring commitment to Southeast Asia and ASEAN centrality, building on the success of the historic US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, DC.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia is this year’s rotating ASEAN chairman.

Washington suspects Hun Sen is allowing China to help refurbish Ream Naval Base on Cambodia’s south coast along the resource-rich and strategic Gulf of Thailand, so Beijing can use it for military purposes.

Cambodia and China deny those allegations. Hun Sen however leans heavily on China’s financial assistance to boost his nationalist and capitalist themes and policies.

In October 2021, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh’s Spokesman Chad Roedemeier said:

“The government of Cambodia has not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of this project or the role of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] military, which raises concerns about intended use of the [Ream] naval facility.”

A Cambodian naval officer salutes at the Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Image: Twitter

The US Embassy is “aware of consistent, credible reporting that significant construction by the People’s Republic of China continues at Ream Naval Base,” Roedemeier told the US government’s Voice of America (VOA).

Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan told VOA, “We confirm that the base is not built to serve the interest of China. It’s a world port that any country can visit officially. It’s not for China to use exclusively,” said Phay Siphan.

“The CPP (Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party) does seem to be annoyed that the US disregards their protestations of innocence in regards to Ream,” Etcheson said.

In November 2021, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, against Cambodia’s navy commander and a defense ministry official “for their roles in corruption in Cambodia.”

They allegedly “conspired to profit from activities regarding the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities” by overcharging the costs, the US Treasury said.

“Of the 28 active sanctions on Cambodia listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control within the US Department of the Treasury, 26 fall under a law called the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in June.

“This law allows the United States to place targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of corruption anywhere around the world.

“The Global Magnitsky Act was never meant to alter the strategic behavior of states. Washington’s use of GMA as a back door to punish Phnom Penh for its strategic balancing toward Beijing has been ineffective, and undermines the legitimacy of the tool,” the CSIS report’s joint authors Gregory B Poling, Charles Dunst and Simon Tran Hudes said.

In 2020, the Treasury Department sanctioned a Chinese company for allegedly illegally seizing land along the Gulf of Thailand in Koh Kong province from farmers and fishermen, and evicting them, to build a US$3.8 billion luxury gambling and lifestyle project.

The Dara Sakor Seashore Resort includes an international airport and a port for cruise ships, and “could be used to host [Chinese] military assets,” then-State Secretary Mike Pompeo said.

China’s embassy in Phnom Penh said: “The US sanction, citing domestic law, is a blatant hegemonic act.

“The US suppression on the legitimate investment of a Chinese enterprise in Cambodia will not only harm the lawful rights and interests of the enterprise, but also trample on the sovereignty of Cambodia,” China’s embassy said.

Best of friends: Xi Jinping (L) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on December 21, 2009. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin SothyChinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

“This one does not have anything to do with the government, because it’s a private company,” government spokesperson Phay Siphan told VOA.

“Dara Sakor is civilian – there is no base at all. It could be converted, yes, but you could convert anything.”

The Chinese company also denied the allegations. China became Cambodia’s biggest military source in 2018.

Some analysts perceive Cambodia as a proxy for US-China rivalry.

“Cambodia is on course to be the next Asian Tiger, and that is good news for America,” Cambodia’s Ambassador to the United States, Chum Sounry, said last year.

“Ford Motors recently announced that it is building a $21 million assembly plant in the Pursat province of Cambodia.

“And the recent virtual business summit showcased the ease of doing business in Cambodia experienced by US companies in a range of industries — from energy to manufacturing, and financial services to health care,” the ambassador said.

Hun Sen meanwhile has been asking Biden to stop demanding Cambodia repay money Washington loaned a US-backed regime in the 1970s to buy bombs to drop on Cambodia during the regional US-Vietnam War.

“I consider the US debt Cambodia owed during the rule of [prime minister] Lon Nol to be a ‘dirty’ debt that forced Cambodia to buy American bombs and drop them on the heads of Cambodians, causing many deaths and injuries,” Hun Sen said in a 2021 speech.

US aircraft killed more than 150,000 civilians by dropping 2,756,941 tons of ordnance on Cambodia beginning in 1965 and peaking in 1970-73, according to a “Bombs Over Cambodia” report published by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program.

The US was trying to destroy cross-border communist Viet Cong guerrillas’ havens. But the intense bombing helped popularize Pol Pot’s jungle-based Khmer Rouge insurgency against Lon Nol, a US-backed general who had seized power in a 1970 coup, the Yale report said.

During the 1970s, Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge regiment commander. In 1975, Pol Pot toppled Mr. Lon Nol and obliterated his government. Lon Nol died in California in 1985.

The US reportedly had loaned Lon Nol’s anti-communist regime nearly $280 million which, with accrued interest, today totals more than $500 million.

“That [Lon Nol] government has not existed in nearly 50 years,” the CSIS report said.

“Three separate Cambodian regimes – the Khmer Rouge, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and the modern-day Kingdom of Cambodia – have ruled Phnom Penh since.

US President Richard M. Nixon points to a map during a press conference on Vietnam and Cambodia in Washington, D.C. on 30 April 1970. Photo: AFP / National Archives US President Richard M. Nixon points to a map during a press conference on Vietnam and Cambodia in Washington, DC on 30 April 1970. Photo: AFP / National Archives

“It is unreasonable to expect the existing Cambodian government to pay back this debt that it did not incur,” the CSIS report said.

In 1975, victorious Khmer Rouge enforced an ultra-Maoist, horrific “killing fields” regime which left up to two million Cambodians dead from extrajudicial executions, torture, starvation, and policies that intentionally destroyed the country’s medical, agricultural, financial and other systems.

In 1977, Hun Sen defected when internal Khmer Rouge purges worsened. Safe in neighboring Vietnam, he was groomed in Hanoi and installed as Cambodia’s foreign minister after invading Vietnamese troops chased Pol Pot back into the jungle in 1979.

In 1985, during Vietnam’s 10-year occupation, Hanoi ensured Mr. Hun Sen became Cambodia’s prime minister. Future twists may come if Hun Sen’s son and heir apparent, Hun Manet, becomes Cambodia’s next leader. Hun Manet trained at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Biden’s total trip begins in Egypt on November 11 at a conference on Climate Change (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh. After Cambodia, Mr. Biden goes to Bali, Indonesia, November 13-16 for a G20 Leaders’ summit where he will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.

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