Cambodia dismissed Wednesday a threat by U.S. lawmakers to cut off aid amid concerns over the legitimacy of an upcoming general election, saying Cambodians have the right to decide their own future.
A day after lawmakers in Washington urged President Barack Obama’s administration to discontinue aid to Cambodia unless Prime Minister Hun Sen allows free elections on July 28, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said aid does not make his country beholden to the United States.
“Whether the U.S. helps Cambodia [with aid] or not is within the U.S.’s rights, but Cambodia is a sovereign and independent state,” he told a press conference in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
“People can say what they want, but the right to decide the country’s destiny is in the hands of the people of Cambodia.”
Call for 'tougher approach'
His remarks came after a hearing on Cambodia’s elections in the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, where the head of the panel called for a “tougher approach” against Hun Sen if he extends his 28 years in power after an unfair election.
U.S. lawmakers in both the House and Senate are introducing resolutions seeking to reduce the more than U.S. $70 million in annual aid to Cambodia—particularly direct assistance to the government— if the election is not "credible and competitive."
Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Spokesman Koy Kuong said the calls for a halt to the aid were not widespread enough to be an issue of concern to Cambodia.
“A few U.S. lawmakers can’t represent the U.S. government,” he said.
Urging 'credible' polls
The U.S. State Department has urged Cambodian government to take steps to hold credible polls and allow Hun Sen’s main rival Sam Rainsy back into the country “without fear for his personal safety or incarceration.”
The opposition leader, who is the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, is living in exile to avoid time in prison on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Republican lawmaker Steve Chabot, who chairs the panel’s Asia-Pacific subcommittee, urged the Obama administration to take a stronger stance against Cambodia, saying U.S. policy “needs to change.”
Chabot said he is introducing legislation to cut assistance to Cambodia if the election is not fair, adding that the U.S. should not recognize the Cambodian vote as legitimate if U.N. recommendations are ignored and opposition leaders are excluded.
Two prominent Senate Republicans—Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham—have introduced a similar bill saying that a Cambodian government formed through "illegitimate elections" would be ineligible for "direct" aid.
Chabot said the Cambodia is “consumed by a corrupt political system” and that he expected Hun Sen would win the election to extend his 28 years in power "through the incitement of political violence, corruption, and nepotism."
“Despite the large amount of aid the U.S. and international community has provided to the Cambodian government and its people … Hun Sen is taking every action to make it nearly impossible for this aid to be used effectively in a political and social structure that is mired in corruption,” he said.
The top Democrat on the subcommittee Eni Faleomavaega lashed out at the calls for halting aid, calling instead for debt relief for and greater U.S. investment in Cambodia.
Cutting off aid would be like “using a sledgehammer to tell the Cambodian people that they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.