The White House announced Tuesday the U.S. is cutting aid to Cambodia because of “recent setbacks to democracy” in the southeast Asian country.
The statement said the setbacks caused the administration of President Donald Trump “deep concern” and prompted a review of U.S. aid, resulting in reductions in military and civilian aid.
The White House said the U.S. would continue to support health, agricultural, mine clearance and other programs “in support of the Cambodian people.”
The reduction in U.S. aid comes after Human Rights Watch reported in January the Cambodian government’s “broad political crackdown” last year “effectively extinguished” the country’s emerging democracy.
In its annual World Report, the rights group said the government, controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party for more than three decades, disbanded the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and arrested its leader on questionable treason charges. The dissolution came after a ruling the CNRP was involved in an attempt to overthrow Hun Sen’s regime.
The report said government authorities also abused the judicial system to prosecute political opponents and human rights activists and forced the closure of several independent media outlets, including radio stations that broadcast programming from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. RFA’s Cambodian bureau was subsequently forced to close, and authorities charged two RFA journalists with spying in November for allegedly providing information to a foreign country.
“The last vestiges of democratic government in Cambodia disappeared in 2017,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams. “Hun Sen cemented his 33-year rule into dictatorship at the expense of the Cambodian people’s basic rights.”
The delegation to the European Union to Cambodia announced in December it was suspending funding for Cambodia’s National Election Commission after the dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha.
The EU said the party’s elimination meant the government could not organize a legitimate election in 2018 as planned. In November, the U.S. also decided to suspend funding for the NEC.
Despite the suspensions, NEC officials said it would not affect the NEC’s ability to hold an election, as it had lined up funding from government and other donors, including China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The increasing tensions with the EU and the U.S. come as Cambodia is becoming close to Beijing, which is offering political and economic support to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer.
After the U.S. November announcement it was suspending funding to the NEC for the vote scheduled for July 29, 2018, the pro-government Fresh News website reported that Hun Sen said in a speech to garment workers that he welcomed the cut in U.S. aid, and urged Washington to cut all assistance.
Although U.S. assistance to Cambodia for health, education, governance, economic development and clearing unexploded ordnance was worth more than $77.6 million in 2014, China is now Cambodia’s biggest donor and lender.
According to The Economist, Chinese firms sent nearly $5 billion to Cambodia in loans and investments between 2011 and 2015, which accounts for about 70 percent of total industrial development.
A Cambodian court, meanwhile, ordered the seizure Tuesday of CNRP’s headquarters because former party co-leader Sam Rainsy failed to pay a $1 million judgment against him for allegedly defaming him, as well as compensation to another ruling party leader. Rainsy owns the property that was seized.