Interviews | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

A Cambodian Ambassador in Washington

Despite the two nations’ differences, Chum Sounry says relations are moving ahead.

A Cambodian Ambassador in Washington
Credit: Depositphotos

Chum Sounry will return home shortly after completing his term as Cambodia’s envoy to the United States. The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt asked the outgoing envoy 10 questions regarding his time in Washington, D.C. and the outlook for its relations with Phnom Penh.

As Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States since 2018, what have been the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of your job?

The key priority during my tenure is to contribute to deepening closer friendship and broadening productive cooperation between Cambodia and the United States on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests. Mekong and ASEAN platforms have also been my focus.

The most rewarding aspect of my tenure is to have contributed to the significant growth in bilateral trade relations, humanitarian partnership, and people-to-people linkages.

The most challenging part is the divergent views of the two countries on certain issues, including geopolitical factors. Diversity must be respected while prejudice must be refrained if we are to push further the elevation of the bilateral relationship.

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently described Cambodia’s relationship with the U.S. as “frosty.” Is that a fair description?

The characterization does not reflect the full picture of the bilateral relationship. Despite our differences, the two countries have managed to identify common ground to move bilateral and regional partnership forward for the benefits of both nations and peoples. For instance, we have enjoyed wide-ranging cooperation, notably in trade and investment, the POW/MIA program, counter-terrorism, culture, and humanitarian affairs, including de-mining. The collaboration on regional and global issues of common concerns is also recognized by both sides.

Every bilateral relationship across the world always encounters challenges. Recently, we witnessed the distinct perspectives between the United States and its allies. For our part, Cambodia remains committed to working with the United States to address them in an amicable and respectful manner with shared interests.

What is the current state of negotiations in regards to the restructuring of war era debt, now valued at about $700 million, humanitarian loans which were provided to secure food supplies in remote areas cut off by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s?

The war-era loan was not humanitarian. It was instead a dirty debt because it did not serve the interests of the Cambodian people. The Cambodian government has been in a very difficult position in explaining the debt payment to the people. As a result, Cambodia has called for this dirty debt scrapped because the United States has done so with several countries.

To exercise our flexibility, Cambodia’s prime minister, during his meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in June 2021 in Phnom Penh, proposed three bilateral mechanisms to restructure the said debt: (1) a gradual repayment scheme; (2) a repayment scheme with an interest rate not higher than 1 percent; and (3) the conversion of more than 70 percent of the debt payment into development assistance in favor of education, culture, and de-mining. Cambodia looks forward to receiving constructive proposals from the United States with moral justice.

The Cambodian government has accused the U.S. of backing a “color revolution” made up of members and supporters of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party and led by Sam Rainsy. What type of support has the U.S. provided?

It is better to raise this question to Mr. Kem Sokha or Mr. Rainsy. Neither Cambodian government nor Cambodian courts asserted that the government of the United States has involved in the color revolution campaign in Cambodia. However, speaking to his supporters in Australia, Mr. Kem Sokha, the former President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), publicly confessed that he received instructions from certain foreign countries which were helping his party with advisers and funding to overthrow the government of Cambodia based on a model applied in the former Yugoslavia and Serbia. In a media interview with Radio Free Asia, Mr. Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the CNRP, also confirmed the said supports of the foreign countries extended to the CNRP. What does this deed qualify as? According to the law of many Western countries, such behavior has only one name: treason.

How did the elections in 2018, when the Cambodian People’s Party won every seat contested in the National Assembly, impact on U.S.-Cambodian relations?

Cambodia remains steadfast in pursuing its irreversible democratic journey with pluralism. The absence of one politician or a political party, due to the multiple violations of laws, does not distract Cambodia from pluralism. The 2018 election was a good instance whereby the people continued to choose one out of the 20 contesting parties. More importantly, the turnout of 83.02 percent, surpassing that in several Western democracies, is a complete repudiation of the call for a boycott by some opposition politicians and some foreign governments that support them.

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Despite verification by hundreds of international observers from over 52 countries, nearly 80,000 political parties’ agents and about 80,000 others from national associations and organizations, the groups who hoped for an undemocratic regime change were not satisfied with the results and continued to advocate for unilateral coercive measures without respecting the genuine choice of the Cambodian people.

Only Cambodian people have the highest say on the state of democracy in the Kingdom. Their voice is reflected through the electoral outcomes, which must be respected by everyone. Foreign countries have no rights to dictate who should be a ruling party or an opposition one. Cambodia must be entitled to the sovereign rights to enforce domestic laws. The law enforcement should be allowed to run its course without any external pressure.

In the post-2018 election, wide-ranging relations and cooperation between the two countries, despite bifurcation over certain topics, continue to grow as highlighted earlier.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has been used by the U.S. to sanction and freeze the assets of senior individuals and Chinese firms in Cambodia over alleged human rights abuses. What can be done to have those sanctions lifted?

Cambodia deplores the long-arm jurisdiction of the United States over Cambodian officials on the basis of groundless allegations driven by geopolitical rather than value motives.

This unilateral sanction of the United States against public figures of a sovereign state not only violates international law and basic norms governing international relations, but also displays an utter contempt for legal and judicial independence and serious interference in another country’s domestic affairs. The Resolution of the Human Rights Council (46/5) adopted in March 2021 strongly condemns the continued application and enforcement by certain powers of unilateral coercive measures as tools of pressure against least developed and developing countries.

In November 2021, the Department of State obviously evinced its interest in “working together with Cambodia as the next ASEAN Chair.” However, the said move is a step in a wrong direction deviating from the spirit of trust building and renewed endeavors to further elevate productive partnership between the two countries.

Despite the painful past, Cambodia has never demanded the United States to pay its moral debt. Cambodia merely wants to establish and enhance stronger and closer relations and cooperation with the United States. Such a sanction does not serve the interest of either Cambodian people or the American people.

What impact will the Cambodian Democracy Act have on Cambodia if passed by the U.S. Congress?

The sponsors of the Cambodia Democracy Act have never been to Cambodia and excessively rely upon one-sided and unverified sources of information fraught with double standards and geopolitical motivations.

Human rights is not about a sprint and perfection, but more about marathon and progress. The fact is the United States, with more than 200 years of experience with democracy and human rights, continues to encounter systematic challenges we all are still witnessing. Therefore, the expectation on Cambodia’s democracy with full peace of just 23 years old should be realistic and practical. It is obvious that Cambodia remains steadfast in protecting and promoting rights records. But one cannot expect Cambodians to speak English quite well as Americans do.

As a small country with a tragic past, Cambodia wants nothing less than enduring peace and political stability, sine qua non conditions for sustainable development, peaceful democratization, and fulfillment of human rights obligations.

We cannot change history, but for sure we can shape our future. We need to change the narrative and move away from the stigma of the past, marred with misunderstanding and misperception, toward one of mutual trust and respect.

The Cambodia Democracy Act is another step in a wrong direction. If enacted, the legislation will undermine the chance of fostering closer partnership that advance the U.S. values and interests in the region. But, with the right understanding, it is reversible. Continued engagement is a key to the prosperous partnership between the two countries.

Many analysts are saying the re-emergence of the Quad and the recent AUKUS deal has shifted the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. How will this shift impact on Cambodia?

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In principle, Cambodia welcomes all initiatives that do not trigger rivalry and further escalate tension in the region. They must contribute to durable peace, stability, and security for sustainable development and economic growth. A hidden geopolitical agenda against a third party must be refrained.

In this regard, Cambodia welcomes the Quad’s commitment to deliver up to 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to ASEAN and the Pacific region by the end of 2022.

U.S. senior diplomat Wendy Sherman says Washington has “serious concerns” about China’s “military presence” at the Ream Naval Base, which is undergoing a Beijing-backed expansion on Cambodia’s coast. Why is the US so concerned?

The prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister of Cambodia have squarely rejected the unfounded alleged presence of a foreign military base or a secret deal for China’s exclusive access to any part of the Ream Naval Base. This assurance has been repeated on multiple occasions.

Cambodia’s Constitution prohibits both an alien garrison on its territory and an overseas deployment of its forces, except within the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. As a peace-loving nation, the kingdom requires no military intervention to defend itself nor to wage a war against any state. Modernization of the naval base does not pose any threat to regional peace and security.

At request of the United States, Cambodia has authorized the military attaché of the Embassy of United States in Phnom Penh to visit Ream Naval Base. The claim that the embassy’s team did not have full access was unwarranted. A naval base is not like a fish market where everyone can get in or out arbitrarily. Certain protocols must be maintained.

Cambodia has assumed the chair of ASEAN for 2022. What will be the biggest test in U.S.-Cambodian relations over the coming year? Will you have a role?

During the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in October 2021, President Joe Biden promised to make the United States more present in Southeast Asia and to bolster the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership, particularly in health, climate, economic, and education programs. These run parallel to Cambodia’s priorities during its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022, namely regional healthcare system, post-COVID-19 economic recovery, climate change, people-to-people exchanges, etc.

Thus, the biggest test will be the translation into concrete action of the renewed engagement of the United States that will bring further tangible development progress to countries in the region including Cambodia. Like other ASEAN members, Cambodia welcomes the genuine commitment to partnership for peace, stability, security, and common prosperity on the basis of merits rather than geopolitical rivalry. Cambodia looks forward to working closely with the United States to materialize its said commitment, including dialogues to encourage and promote further investment of the United States in Cambodia. For that, I stand ready to contribute to it in any role in which I can be of help.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Patreon and Twitter.