PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) –Washington’s most senior diplomat for Asia hailed Tuesday efforts by Cambodia’s opposition to fight for clean elections and a more transparent government.
“The important thing is not to let up now!” Daniel R. Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, urged in a speech here. “Both sides should keep focused on this priority.”
Reviewing Cambodia’s events of the last year, Mr. Russel, cited the July 2013 parliamentary elections “an important milestone.”
“The country’s voters – especially young people – made a clear call for reform,” he said of the unexpectedly close election. Referring to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, he said: “We followed closely the CNRP’s boycott of parliament and the largely peaceful political demonstrations that followed. They showed the determination of the Cambodian people to ensure that their voices were both heard and respected.”
Political Agreement is Step Forward
He hailed the July agreement by the CNRP to take its seats in the National Assembly as “an important first step for reform.”
“We have now seen parliament ensure government accountability by hosting hearings with Ministers,” he said in a speech hosted at the Cambodiana Hotel by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “Government and opposition working together is essential to addressing the urgent challenges facing your country, from corruption and human rights concerns, to labor issues and environmental protection.”
On the labor front, he said that “through U.S.-supported programs with Better Factories Cambodia and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, we are improving the work environment for thousands of garment workers, and helping them organize. Collective bargaining and improved communication between workers and employers will help them hold on to recent gains. And it will increase the stability of Cambodia’s growing economy.”
He noted that the United States is the largest importer of Cambodian exports, largely garments.
“The decision to increase the minimum wage, and the successful, peaceful implementation of that decision, were important signs of progress,” the American diplomat said. “They were noted around the world – in both national capitals and corporate headquarters – and this action will help maintain Cambodia’s impressive economic growth.”
Before coming to the Cambodiana, Mr. Russel met three blocks away at the Foreign Ministry with Secretary of State Ouch Borith. There he asked why CNRP and land activists were arrested last year.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry Version
After the meeting, Mr. Borith briefed reporters.
“Even America limits the space and time for protests to conduct, and if they go over the regulated limits, they are detained,” he said.
At the Cambodiana, the American diplomat assured his audience: “We don’t interfere in the political decision making affairs of a sovereign nation.”
Thai Military Warned
Before coming to Cambodia for a one-day visit, Mr. Russel met in Bangkok with officials of the Thai military government that came to power in a coup last May.
According to an interview published Tuesday in The New York Times, Washington will not “paper over problems” with democracy in Thailand.
“Thailand is losing credibility in the eyes of its international friends and partners by not moving more quickly to end martial law, to restore civil rights and to ensure that this effort to engineer a new constitution and hold elections is not purely a top-down affair,” Mr. Russel told Thomas Fuller, the Bangkok-based correspondent for the Times.
In Phnom Penh, he had a more upbeat message.
He invited more American investment here, citing a $100 million expansion plan by Coca-Cola in Cambodia. He said that Washington has given Cambodia $1 billion in aid since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
“Last year, the number of Cambodians studying in the US was about 400 – we want to double this,” he told an audience sprinkled with graduate students. “And to achieve that goal by 2020, we’re investing in English-language teaching and academic advising that will make your youths competitive and ready for success.”
In response to a question by Khmer Times about a China-US rivalry in Southeast Asia, Mr. Russel said that China-US relations are far from the zero sum relationship that characterized Soviet-US relations during the Cold War.
“We have given, we have invested $1 billion in Cambodia with no expectation of a profit or a return,” said Mr. Russel, who has worked in China, Japan and South Korea during his three decade career with the State Deparment. “Because a stable Cambodia is good for us, a prosperous Cambodia is good for us, a democratic Cambodia is good for us, an educated Cambodia is good for us. But that does not mean that relations between Phnom Penh and Beijing should suffer.”