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Hopes High For Cancellation Of Cambodia’s Lon Nol Debt

Phnom Penh, 2 June: There are increasing hopes that Cambodia’s almost $700-million debt to the United States will soon be renegotiated. The issue was discussed during yesterday’s wide-ranging discussions between Prime Minister Hun Sen and US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman.

The US Deputy Secretary of State touched down at Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday morning for a whistle-stop, one–day visit. Short – but certainly significant – with Wendy Sherman being the highest-ranking US official to visit Cambodia in almost a decade – and the first member of the Biden Administration to tour Southeast Asia – barely six months into Joe Biden’s presidential term.

The talks at the Peace Parliament in Phnom Penh were described by the Cambodian government as “frank” – by the US State Department as “candid”. A number of critically important bilateral issues were discussed, from human rights to investment, but it is the huge war-era debt that Cambodia owes the US that appears to have moved forward. 

The debt is almost $700-million and, with interest, is growing every year. Prime Minister Hun Sen requested Wendy Sherman to ask President Joe Biden to resolve the debt through a bilateral strategy. That would see Cambodia repaying up to 30% of the debt at 1% interest, with the remaining 70% being returned to the country through investments in education, demining, and socio-economic upliftment. Sherman promised that all of the Prime Minister’s requests would be submitted to the White House and it would seem that renegotiation of the debt is likely.

The US Deputy Secretary of State had a letter for the Prime Minister from President Joe Biden, stating his intention to work closely with Cambodia in the interests of mutual cooperation and it appears that more US investment could be on its way. Sherman highlighted opportunities for cooperation between Phnom Penh and Washington, including cooperation on oil and gas investment, along with investments in water infrastructure and green energy. 

Wendy Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh underscores Washington’s efforts to increase its influence in Southeast Asia, amidst its ongoing diplomatic tussle with Beijing. The US State Department’s statement after yesterday’s meeting at the Peace Parliament is telling.

In it, the U.S stresses its “commitment to the Cambodian people”, noting that “more than $3 billion in assistance” has been given to Cambodia by the United States. The statement also underlines U.S. support for Cambodia during the Covid-19 pandemic, “including $11 million to help address economic and health challenges along with expert advice from U.S. health agencies in Cambodia”.  

Beijing was clearly on Wendy Sherman’s mind though. Her statement last night “urged Cambodia’s leadership to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people”. She went onto emphasize the “importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms as integral” to Cambodia and the United States bilateral relationship.  

The Deputy Secretary has assured Prime Minister Hun Sen that the United States intends to work with Cambodia in its role as 2022 ASEAN Chair and help ensure it can play “a constructive role in addressing critical regional political and security challenges, including in North Korea, the South China Sea, and the Mekong region”, expressing appreciation for Cambodia’s work as 2021 co-chair of the Mekong-U.S. Partnership.

BREAKING NEWS: US Deputy Secretary of State Pledges to Take Samdech Techo Hun Sen's Request to President Joe Biden

During today’s bilateral meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the Prime Minister requested that the United States, especially President Joe Biden, consider resolving Cambodia's debt to the United States during the Lon Nol regime, amounting to some $700 million, through a bilateral strategy. The first step would be to allow Cambodia to repay this debt gradually, with the second being to repay the debt through an interest payment program at 1%. The balance, approximately 70% of the total debt, should be returned to help Cambodia in the fields of education, demining and cultural development.

Sherman promised that all of Samdech Techo's requests would be submitted to the US President. 

The US Deputy Secretary of State brought a letter from President Joe Biden addressed directly to Samdech Techo, stating that it is the intention of the President of the United States to make the two countries richer through mutual cooperation. 

Sherman expressed her deep appreciation for past cooperation between Cambodia and the United States in a variety of areas, most especially the search for the remains of missing US soldiers in Cambodia, counter-terrorism and humanitarian efforts, such as allowing MS Amsterdam to dock in Cambodia last year when so many other countries had refused, owing to its outbreak of Covid-19. 

Sherman also mentioned opportunities for cooperation between the two countries, including the elimination of Cambodia's debt owed to the United States, cooperation on soft oil and gas investment, and investment in water infrastructure and green energy. 

In response, the Prime Minister expressed his pleasure at what the Deputy Secretary said, most especially the United States contributing towards peace in the country. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen also thanked the United States for directly and indirectly helping Cambodia, through the World Health Organisation, in its fight against the spread of Covid-19.

The Prime Minister also congratulated the people and government of the United States on their successful containment of Covid-19, reflected in the recent decline in the country’s case count. 

Samdech Techo also asked the United States to review its policy of deporting Cambodian nationals.

BREAKING NEWS: Senior US Official Holds Talks With Prime Minister Hun Sen

Phnom Penh, 1 June: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has held talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen, shortly after touching down in Cambodia for a one-day visit as part of a broader diplomatic tour of key ASEAN states. She was greeted at Phnom Penh International Airport this morning by U.S Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy.

She met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cabinet at the Peace Parliament to discuss key bilateral issues.

Sherman arrived in Phnom Penh from Jakarta this morning and will fly onto Bangkok before returning to Washington. She is the most senior U.S. official to visit Cambodia in almost a decade and is the first member of the Biden Administration to visit Southeast Asia. Washington is looking to increase its influence in the region amidst its diplomatic tussle with Beijing.

US’ No 2 diplomat to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1

Phnom Penh: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will be landing in Cambodia for a one-day on June 1 as part of her first multinational tour, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Koy Kuong.

While in Phnom Penh, Sherman will meet Prime Minister Hun Sen and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn to "further strengthen bilateral ties between the US and Cambodia"

Bradley J Murg, senior adviser and distinguished research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, anticipated that Sherman's meetings in the Kingdom will serve as an opportunity for the Biden administration to further clarify its approach to Southeast Asia in contrast to the policies of the Trump administration.

“Potential items on the agenda are likely to include the continued rollout of the new Mekong-US partnership, Washington’s understanding of and deep commitment to the policy of ASEAN centrality, and, inevitably, its continuing concerns regarding China’s role in the Kingdom,” he said.

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