PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — When the USS Gary arrived at the touristy port city of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, last month, it became the first US military vessel to dock in this Southeast Asian nation in over 30 years. US and Cambodian military personnel played soccer, and military doctors fixed the teeth of poor Cambodian villagers.
It's a different picture from the last time the Navy came to Cambodia in 1975, after the infamous Khmer Rouge regime had seized the US merchant ship SS Mayaguez and the military launched a full-scale rescue mission in response.
The USS Gary is just one sign of warming relations between the two nations. Two days after the ship left Sihanoukville, President Bush signed into law a budget resolution for 2007 that for the first time in nearly a decade lifts the congressional ban on direct US funding to Cambodia.
This change in US policy comes as the international community calls attention to Cambodia's shortcomings on corruption and human rights. US officials say that it is a shift of strategy driven, in part, by the exigencies of the US-led war on terror.
"Our hope is to have more normal relations and draw Cambodia closer to the community of nations," says Joseph Mussomeli, the US ambassador to Cambodia.
The appearance in Cambodia in 2002 and 2003 of Riduan Isamuddin – an Indonesian better known as Hambali, who was believed to be Al Qaeda's top operative in Southeast Asia – was a wake-up call to Washington, one Cambodia-watcher and US congressional aide said on condition of anonymity. "Washington bureaucrats finally realized what Cambodia-watchers knew all along: Cambodia matters, and it is indeed a swamp in need of draining."
Sam Rainsy, the leader of the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party, which is the closest thing Cambodia has to an opposition party, praises the policy change, saying it will give the US more leverage to promote human rights and democracy in a region increasingly dominated by China. "China does not pay any attention to human rights," he says. "We cannot leave our country to Chinese influence alone. The world must be more balanced."
China's roots in Cambodia are deep and in recent years it has emerged as one of Cambodia's most generous donors.
Moreover, Chevron's discovery of oil offshore in 2005 has led to speculation that this small, impoverished nation could become the world's newest petrostate.
Mr. Mussomeli, however, says China and oil have nothing to do with the warming relations. "The US is looking to see progress on issues that matter to the Cambodian people – greater openness, greater democratization, a higher standard of living, and a genuine commitment to stamp out corruption," he says. Congress has earmarked $15 million for democracy and rule-of-law programs in Cambodia this year.
Though Mussomeli says Cambodia is becoming a more open society, the nation still has a long way to go. In its annual review of human rights around the world, released last week, the US State Department took Cambodia to task for its "poor" human rights record, citing security forces that act with impunity, arbitrary arrests, endemic corruption, and human trafficking.
Local rights group Licadho found that nearly 40 percent of the 172 human rights abuses it documented in the first half of 2006 were perpetrated by the military or the police.
US officials stress that the lifting of the ban on direct assistance and military aid will not result in a tide of new money sloshing around government coffers. No new direct funding has yet been committed. "The absence of restrictions will not result in a major change in US government funding priorities, oversight, or project management, as we look to develop this promising bilateral relationship," says Erin Soto, the Cambodia Mission Director of USAID.
Mu Sochua, the secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party, warns of the US loosening its oversight of the country's governance. "If the US is only thinking about fighting terrorism and lowers its standards on the performance of governments in terms of democratic social protections, that will not be beneficial to the Cambodian people."