After years of sour, tense and, at times, acrimonious relations between Cambodia and the United States, newly accredited US Ambassador Patrick Murphy has made all the right moves to turn a page and set his goals on improving bilateral relations.
Key to this is his commitment to Prime Minister Hun Sen of his intentions not to be embroiled or involved in the internal affairs of Cambodia nor talk about or dwell on the rather thorny issue of regime change.
In addition, he also affirmed his commitment to oppose violence or any acts that contradict the democratic path in the Kingdom.
Murphy, who presented his credentials to His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, last week is no stranger to Cambodia or to the region. Being a career diplomat at the Senior Foreign Service, he had led the US Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs as senior bureau official as acting assistant secretary of state.
In addition, he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia from 2016 to 2018, served as deputy chief of mission and charge d’affaires in the Kingdoms of Thailand and Lesotho. He is a veteran diplomat who has deep knowledge of Asia.
Since joining the foreign service in 1992, he has also completed diplomatic assignments abroad in Myanmar, China, Iraq, Guinea, and Mali. His prior Washington service at the US Department of State includes acting special representative for Myanmar, director and deputy director of the Office for Mainland Southeast Asia, political adviser for the Haiti Working Group and desk officer for Burma and Laos.
With such a chequered history and hands on experience in the region, Murphy is well placed to understand the intricacies and complex dynamics of Cambodia’s politics and foreign policy.
Democracy and human rights need to be understood in different contexts. Democracy in the US is facing certain challenges because of the rise of populist politics. In a post-conflict Cambodia, peace and stability remain fragile from rising political extremism, populism, and polarisation. For Cambodia, peace and stability comes first.
Democratic development cannot be independent from socio-economic development and quality participation from the people. Cambodia is a developing country that seeks international support to promote its infrastructure and institutions.
In this respect, the US should take a hard and positive look at socio-economic development and poverty reduction over the decades and take steps to resolve the two outstanding issues, namely Cambodia’s debt of more than $500 million and the plight of deported Cambodians and their families who remain behind in the United States.
Early performance shows that Murphy has taken a different path from his two predecessors, who took a confrontational stance towards Cambodia. If he continues along this path towards enhancing bilateral political, trade relations, and not use sanctions or revocation of trade benefits as a weapon against Cambodia, the bilateral trust and relationship will be significantly improved.
The Royal Government of Cambodia and especially the Cambodian people give high value to bilateral relationship with the US, a regional and global superpower.
Upon his arrival, Murphy has been actively meeting his fellow diplomats on a wide range of platforms, over lunch, over coffee, hosting Asean ambassadors to lunch and learning the intricacies of Cambodia, its people and its culture by travelling around some parts of the country.
All these moves and actions, speaks volumes of a veteran politician assigned to mend fences with the host country and not use language or depict actions which shows or could project hostility.
Cambodia and the US have a long and equally chequeured history and have surmounted many obstacles and challenges. Both countries established their diplomatic ties back in 1950.
The bilateral relationship fluctuated during the Indochina War. After the end of the Cold War, the US established a mission to Cambodia on November 11, 1991, with Charles H Twining as its representative and the US embassy was officially re-established with the resumption of normal diplomatic relations in May 1994.
Since then, relations between both countries have been swinging like a pendulum. Since 2017 the bilateral relationship has hit its lowest point.
It is highly expected that Murphy, with his commitment to not interfere in Cambodia’s domestic politics and oppose any regime change through violence, will open a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Often a victim of the law of unintended consequences, which has affected Cambodia economically, morally, physically and also its social stability, now is the time to put this episode behind.
One should not be under any pretence. The bilateral relationship is not out of the woods yet. Much remains to be done on all fronts from trade and investment cooperation, security cooperation, to cooperation on humanitarian issues such as those missing in action and de-mining, as well as democracy and human rights. The resumption of joint military exercises, especially Angkor Sentinel, between the two countries would boost the comprehensive bilateral relations.
Goodwill needs to prevail and is needed on both sides to overcome all adversities, acknowledge, if not accept, Cambodia’s relations with China for infrastructure development. Cambodia is wide open to the US and other countries that are interested in investing in infrastructure in the Kingdom.
The US should rest assured that Cambodia is pursuing an independent foreign policy. It is not a client or vassal state of China or any other country. Moreover, the US should help Cambodia to implement its hedging strategy more effectively. Cambodia matters to the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, especially its engagement with Asean and the Mekong region.
It needs the two to tango. The prospect of bilateral relations depends on goodwill and commitment from both sides. Comprehensive multi-sectoral, and multi-layered engagement is also required.
Time will tell how far and how strong the relations will evolve. Mutual consultation, mutual trust, mutual understanding and mutual respect are the foundations. Just keep the dialogue rolling.