Media complicates Cambodia-US ties

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Asia Times owes Cambodia an apology. This online news outlet should be more professional and act responsibly.

A serious allegation was made against Cambodia in an Asia Times article written by David Hutt and Shawn W Crispin on November 15 suggesting a “revelation” of “an emerging Chinese naval base in Cambodia.”

Amid strong distrust between the US and Cambodia, this article is pouring gasoline over fire. One cannot help but to question the real intention of such a politically sensitive allegation.

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The Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia responded in a straightforward and clear manner against Asia Times’ falsehood and rumour.

This reminded us of a baseless accusation made by the Asia Sentinel in a September 19 news item against former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), which alleged that he was connected with the conspiracy investigation on Century Bank.

“The article it (Asia Sentinel) published was poorly researched without supporting evidence for its outlandish claims,” wrote Ross Tapsell, lecturer and Southeast Asia specialist at the Australian National University.

SBY and his Democratic Party blasted the article as defamatory and threatened to sue the publisher. Later Asia Sentinel retracted the article and apologised to the former president.

Asia Times did not cross-check its information sources and reference properly. There were only two Cambodian names in the article, Sam Rainsy and Sophal Ear whose biased and radical positions are obviously well-known. The indisputable fact is that they have never been to Cambodia these recent years. Cross-checking information with the two individuals confirmed the lack of professionalism and impartiality of Asia Times.

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The intention to stir sensitivity and inflammation is beyond doubt. The article went so far as to drag Vietnam and Thailand into an alleged geopolitical conspiracy, lacking the least respect for historical sensitivity shared by these countries.

There is a need for the media to play a responsible role in order to shed some light on the positive development of Cambodia-US bilateral relations.

Direct and genuine responses by the Royal Government of Cambodia coupled with the recognition of importance of priority in enhancing Cambodia-US bilateral relations as expressed by US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan in his meeting with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn on November 15 should be seen as an early sign of the warming of ties between Cambodia and the US.

Both sides have confirmed their willingness to focus on areas of shared interest without putting everything on hold due to political differences. The provision of GSP and extension of coverage over travel goods, the continued assistance on landmine clearance, and the extension of the MOU concerning “the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archeological Material of Cambodia”, are all practical and pragmatic cooperation being put forward by both governments.

In his response to the US Deputy Secretary of State, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn highlighted Cambodia’s genuine intention to improve ties by resuming the programme related to finding the remains of POWs/MIAs despite the fact that the US still imposes visa restrictions on some Cambodian senior officials. Moreover, Cambodia has also been accepting the repatriation of Cambodian nationals who left for the US after 1994 even though such action was not required in the MOU signed in 2000.

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Cambodia has displayed its honourable intentions in real action. It is extending a “reach-out” through its flexible position and transparency of communication, which demonstrates its sincerity and strong willingness to see bilateral ties being put back in a positive light.

Now, the ball is at the US side to show its political sincerity.

The first step, and one which can take place fast, is for the US to take concrete measures to restore trust and expand areas of bilateral cooperation based on common interests. The bilateral relationship should not be affected by fake news.

The US should consult local Cambodian non-partisan opinion leaders and policy makers before believing in the news. Local knowledge is essential in paving the way for better improvement of the bilateral relationship, while overcoming misunderstanding and political hindrances.

The next step is for the US to show some gestures of goodwill and reciprocate by reaching out to Cambodia. This is necessary in order to prevent Cambodia from going into China’s orbit, against its own independent will and desire. As a small state, Cambodia needs multiple strategic choices or options in order to maintain and strengthen its sovereignty and independence. The US should recognise and understand this basic foreign policy strategy of Cambodia.

Doung Bosba is a  Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh

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