Analysts have warned of deteriorating relations with the United States amid fresh calls for sanctions against Cambodia from US senators.
Last week, US Senator Ben Cardin and seven others petitioned the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, to impose sanctions against the Cambodian government for its “widespread attack on the opposition, civil society, and media”.
He said last year’s dissolution of the CNRP should be reversed, while anti-government media outlets should be allowed to reopen.
In an interview with Khmer Times, CPP lawmaker Suos Yara said different actors were shaping domestic politics and foreign policy in the United States.
“There are a few US congressmen who understand and support Cambodia’s legitimate interests but they have been marginalised,” Mr Yara said.
He warned that sanctions would further deteriorate the still relatively good bilateral relationship between the two countries.
“Although Cambodia is small and a relatively poor country, which may not matter much for the US’s grand geo-political strategy in Asia, Cambodia can serve the US’s long-term interests in the region through supporting US initiatives in Asia,” Mr Yara said.
“It can also serve as a bridge of trust between the US and China, once these two major powers need Cambodia’s modest role.”
In response to the dissolution of the CNRP, the US in November suspended funding for the July general election, for which it had earlier committed to provide $1.8 million.
The US has also imposed visa restrictions on those involved in the government’s “actions to undermine democracy”.
Jean-François Tain, a geopolitics analyst and director of foreign language broadcasts at Radio France International, posted on his Facebook page claiming the US has had no clear foreign policy for Cambodia since the 1950s.
He added that in the eyes of the US, Cambodia was seen as small and insignificant.
“Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has no economic and strategic interests for the US,” he said. “So the US does not care about Cambodia besides talking about human rights and democracy.”
Mr Tain said the US observes Cambodia’s support of China, so does not seek to attract Cambodia back into its sphere of influence.
Legal professor and political analyst Sao Deluxe said the US senators seeking sanctions against Cambodia aimed to project the CNRP as the only viable opposition for the upcoming election this year.
“Those senators believe only a strong opposition will provide multiple choices for the voters,” he said.
In their letter on Thursday, the senators called on Ms Haley to appeal to the UN Human Rights Council to address Cambodia at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session and UN Security Council.
They also urged her to work with other governments to pass a strong resolution that puts the Cambodian government on notice on the international stage.
Former members of the CNRP have also called on the EU and US to put pressure on the Cambodian government through withdrawal of the preferential Everything But Arms and Generalised System of Preferences initiatives.
However, the US multinational Walmart last month said it would buy more garment, footwear and luggage products from Cambodia this year due to increased capacity from suppliers and improved labour conditions in the country.
Labour Minister Ith Samheng said Walmart executives had told him they wanted to increase orders since they were happy with the quality of garment, footwear and luggage products bearing the “Made in Cambodia” label.
According to the Labour Ministry, garment and footwear exports to the United States were valued at $3.7 billion in the first half of 2017, up 6.9 percent.
Mr Deluxe said that trade with Cambodia benefitted US citizens since Cambodia’s labour force was dynamic and competitively priced, however the current “America first” policy could be detrimental.
“The Trump administration’s protectionist principles may even lower their role as a global superpower,” he said.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said US orders were currently stable despite political tensions.
He added that if the US put pressure on the government through the garment sector, the victims would be workers and Cambodian people.
Last week, a memorandum of understanding between the Labour Ministry and the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity on “cooperation in the field of labour” was signed in a first for both sides.
Mr Sina said the MoU showed the relationship between Cambodia and the US was continuing to develop in the garment sector.
He brushed off concerns regarding the US senators’ call for sanctions, saying political issues would not pose a challenge for trade and bilateral cooperation between the nations.
The senators have their right to speak out, but each government must work based on the interests of their countries, he added.