Hours after newly-appointed United States Ambassador Patrick Murphy arrived in Phnom Penh vowing to repair ties with Cambodia, the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit accused the US of sheltering a terrorist group aiming to topple the government.
Mr Murphy arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport on Wednesday night to officially replace William Heidt.
“It’s great to be back in Cambodia! From my first moments here, I feel warmly welcomed and look forward to strengthening the US-Cambodia relationship,” he said on Twitter upon his arrival.
The following morning, the spokesperson unit held a press conference at the Council of Ministers office in Phnom Penh, where two of its spokesmen were joined by a history scholar to accuse the US of harbouring members of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, labelled a terrorist movement by the government.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said supporters of the former opposition CNRP are “secretly” building up a terror organisation in the US with the support of Mr Rainsy, who formed the CNRM after the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court.
“Why do we consider them to be a terrorist group? First, they are organising a terrorist organisation on US soil,” Mr Siphan said. “Second, they are collecting financial support from the US to serve their terrorist activities. It is an illegal act.”
“We are not humiliating the US,” he added. “US citizens should be filing complaints against US congressmen who have been attending Cambodia National Rescue Movement events? It is a terrorist movement.”
Last week, the CNRP announced a budget to support soldiers who defect from the government and ensure safe passage for Mr Rainsy upon his return to the Kingdom in November.
Mr Rainsy, who lives in exile, reportedly travelled to the US on Wednesday to ask for protection from the US government ahead of his planned return, another point raised by Mr Siphan as he argued the US is “sheltering terrorists”.
“They cannot provide shelter to a terrorist group who are on US soil inciting the armed forces to go against a nation and its government that was elected from elections,” he said. “It is against both Cambodian and US laws, and also the charter of the United Nations.”
Emily Zeeberg, spokeswoman for the US embassy, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
However, the US on Wednesday expressed concern over the detention of political activists in the Kingdom and called on the government to lift political restrictions.
“The US is concerned about the Cambodian government’s political repression of former Cambodia National Rescue Party members,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Twitter. “We urge Cambodia to remove undue political restrictions on all persons and to release those prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained.”
Mr Siphan responded to Ms Ortagus during the press conference yesterday.
“I wish to say that Cambodia is a sovereign and independent state, we cannot follow orders from other states,” he said.
The US-Cambodia relationship began to deteriorate in the lead up to the 2018 national election after the CRNP was dissolved in November 2017 and its leader accused of colluding with the US to overthrow the government. The Kingdom has since been pivoting toward China, which has steadfastly refrained from interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
Kin Phea, director-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, recently told Khmer Times that the “world seems to be witnessing a Cold War between the US and China”.
“Of course, we long for a good relation with the US, but such a relationship requires goodwill from both parties,” he said. “Some countries intend to interfere in Cambodia’s internal political affairs and this has an impact on our goodwill to form a close relationship.”
“How the US has been treating Cambodia, for example, is pointing to their intention to influence Cambodia’s political affairs and independence,” he added. “China’s aids and investments, on the other hand, do not come with any condition.”
Ros Chantraboth, a history scholar who joined the spokesperson unit press conference yesterday, said Mr Rainsy’s group intends to destroy the Kingdom.
“Rainsy does not recognise the constitution. He appealed to soldiers to desert and join his group. They will use the money [raised] to hire an army to attack Cambodia,” he said. “If the US continues to support the terrorist activities of Sam Rainsy’s group, it shows that it does not respect its own policies and principles to fight against terrorism activity around the world.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin chimed in that Mr Rainsy is willing to go so far as destroying peace enjoyed by the Kingdom for his own personal gains.
“He will do anything in order to gain power and personal benefit,” he said. “His group would even destroy his own nation and people.”