Cambodian leader, angry with US, wants Peace Corps out

Sopheng Cheang
Associated Press

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Cambodia’s leader has escalated his feud with the United States, calling Friday for U.S. Peace Corps volunteers doing development work to be withdrawn.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s demand was part of an anti-American tirade in a speech to garment workers on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. It came a day after he told a pro-government newspaper that he will order the withdrawal of U.S. military-led teams that search for the remains of Americans missing-in-action from the Vietnam War.

The U.S. government lists 48 Americans still unaccounted for in Cambodia.

The Peace Corps began operating in Cambodia in 2006, mainly providing English-language teaching and health care training. About 500 have done tours since then.

“Better you withdrew your Peace Corps volunteers from Cambodia,” Hun Sen said in his speech.

Washington’s relations with Hun Sen, an autocrat who has held power for three decades, have never been warm. They took a sharp turn for the worse when the head of the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was recently arrested and charged with treason and the United States accused of colluding with him to overthrow the government.

The Sept. 3 arrest of Kem Sokha is one of a series of measures Hun Sen and his government have taken that are seen as an effort to weaken opposition ahead of next year’s general election.

Other moves include closing an independent English-language newspaper and about a dozen radio stations that broadcast opposition voices or programming by the U.S. government-financed Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Radio Free Asia announced this week that it was shutting down its operations in Cambodia, though it would continue reporting about the country.

Hun Sen stepped up his anti-American remarks this week after the U.S. announced it was suspending issuing visas to senior Cambodian foreign ministry officials and their families.

The U.S. said the visa suspension, instituted on Wednesday, was because Cambodia had refused or delayed accepting Cambodian nationals being deported by the United States after being convicted of crimes. Cambodia’s foreign ministry said it just seeks to modify a 2002 agreement on the matter.

Hun Sen also appeared to be angered that the U.S. Embassy on Thursday issued a security message for U.S. citizens, saying the recent political events may raise overall tensions, even though there are no specific threats.

He declared in his Friday speech said there was no threat from the Islamic State group and wondered why the advisory was issued.

“Do you plan to attack Cambodia with missiles, is that why you have called for American nationals to take good care?” he asked. “Are you seeking to scare the Cambodian people?”

He warned U.S. Ambassador William Heidt not to act as if he was Cambodia’s parent.

He also recalled Washington’s playing part in Cambodia’s tragic history, which saw the communist Khmer Rouge seizing power in the late 1970s and implementing brutal policies that left an estimated 1.7 million dead during four years in power.

Earlier this week, Hun Sen said he wanted to keep history from repeating itself, referring to Cambodia’s 1970 military coup — purportedly backed by Washington — that plunged the country into civil war and eventual Khmer Rouge rule.

Hun Sen and his supporters assert that the United States has been trying to undermine the government, promoting a “revolution” that would again plunge Cambodia into chaos.

On Friday, Hun Sen recalled that Cambodia was heavily bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War.

“The experience of suffering in the past because of invasion by the American imperialists we have not yet forgotten. A lot of bombs and unexploded ordinance were left in our ground,” Hun Sen said.

Heidt, speaking to journalists on Tuesday, denied interference in Cambodia’s affairs and said that the United States has been subject to “intentionally inaccurate, misleading and baseless accusations.”

He also made a rare official acknowledgement of the responsibility of the United States for its actions during the Vietnam War.