Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the United States on Friday to withdraw its Peace Corps volunteers from his country a day after he said he was suspending cooperation with Washington to find the remains of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
"It's good if you pull out the Peace Corps," Hun Sen said as he stepped up his criticism of Washington at a gathering of 10,000 garment workers at Vattanac Industrial Park on the southwestern outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 to promote world peace and good will. It has been operating in Cambodia since 2006, involved mostly in English-language teaching and health-care training. About 500 Americans have participated in such stints so far.
As Hun Sen made the announcement, the U.S. embassy was swearing in 71 new volunteers from the Peace Corps, Reuters news agency reported.
On Thursday, he announced a suspension of a long-running search for more than 40 missing-in-action soldiers during the Vietnam War, saying the action was in retaliation for the U.S. decision earlier this week to halt issuing visas to senior Cambodian foreign ministry officials and their families.
Washington issued the visa suspension after Phnom Penh said it would not take back Cambodian nationals being deported by the United States after being convicted of crimes.
Relations between the U.S. and Cambodia are at a new low.
'Misleading, baseless' charges
Hun Sen charged recently that the United States had conspired with Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha to try to overthrow his government.
The Cambodian authorities arrested Kem Sokha on Sept. 3, charging him with treason.
In a strong response, Washington’s ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt branded Hun Sen's claims as “inaccurate, misleading and baseless” and called for Kem Sokha's release.
He also called for an end to pressure on Cambodian civil society and for dialogue between the government and opposition to “salvage” elections scheduled in 2018, where Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party could face a stiff challenge from Kem Sokha's Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Hun Sen also recently forced the closure of The Cambodia Daily, an independent English-language newspaper, over alleged unpaid tax bills as well as about a dozen radio stations that broadcast opposition voices or programming by the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America.
Radio Free Asia announced this week that it would close its nearly 20-year old bureau in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, saying Hun Sen's authoritarian government had made "false statements" and used "intimidating rhetoric" to pressure its local bureau, including allegations of tax and registration violations.
But RFA said it would continue reporting on Cambodia as part of its mission to provide accurate and timely news and information on Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.
'No pressure applied'
The Cambodian Information Ministry denied that the government had applied pressure on RFA and warned that any RFA reporter continuing to work for RFA within Cambodia would be regarded as "spies."
“In the name of the Ministry of Information, I would like to completely deny that the ministry has put pressure or restricted freedom against Radio Free Asia (RFA) or other media outlets," ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng told a press conference.
"This is the point that the Ministry of Information would like to clarify to the public in regard to RFA’s statement.”
He indicated that the closure of the RFA office in Phnom Penh would make its reporters' work in the country illegal.
"If they want to work from such darkness, they should be held accountable before the law of our country… whether the law permits them to do so," he said.
"For me, if RFA [reporters] join our [press conference] here today, I welcome them. But from tomorrow on I won’t, because they have decided to stop working in Cambodia. ”
Reported by Moniroth Morm and translated by Sovannarith Keo for RFA's Khmer Service.