This short article looks at how French and US policy on Cambodia has sometimes exacerbated internal political tensions.
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Selective principles, confusing signals: French and US policy on Cambodia
Although France and the US no longer have significant strategic interests in Cambodia, their long involvement in Vietnam has conditioned their roles in Cambodia in contrasting ways, at times exacerbating, if not directly contributing to internal political tensions.
France was seen to have 'saved' Cambodia from the hegemonic tendencies of its neighbours with the establishment of its protectorate in 1887, though its strategic interest in Southeast Asia has always revolved around Vietnam and continues to do so. The strong attraction Vietnam holds economically for France means that its efforts to promote good relations with Vietnam as well as to restore French influence over its Indochinese colonial empire have strongly influenced its policy on Cambodia.
Following Cambodia's international isolation during the 1980s, France was the first major Western power to restore relations with the Hun Sen regime by re-opening its Phnom Penh embassy in 1991. France led the rally to declare Hun Sen's victory in the 1993 elections and, in spite of Prince Ranariddh's surprise victory, the perceived threat he posed to French relations with Vietnam means that Hun Sen remains in favour. This relationship was clearly illustrated by France's muted response to both the July coup and Hun Sen's 1998 electoral victory under widespread allegations of fraud.
The US response to the July coup was also heavily influenced by its historical role in Vietnam, one which still casts a long and painful shadow. Though the initial response by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh was also muted and likely interpreted by Hun Sen as an indication that the US would not take sides, the US State Department soon came under domestic pressure to condemn the 'communist dictator' Hun Sen. Although the US has sought stronger ties with Vietnam in recent years as part of its policy of normalising relations, allowing Vietnam the moral victory of seeing its 'man' Hun Sen retain power was a step too far for right-wing elements within the American Congress still intent on punishing Vietnam for the war.
Congress' action forced the State Department to take a strong line, to cut all but essential humanitarian assistance to Cambodia, and to pressure Hun Sen to allow Prince Ranariddh's participation in the July elections. Although unhappy with Ranariddh for his failings as Prime Minister, strong US political backing was provided for him in exile which, along with the support of other countries, was a crucial lifeline for FUNCINPEC. While the first serious attempt to use political conditionalities, there was a danger that it was based on a simplistic assumption about how democracy should be supported in Cambodia. At the same time, it also raised the spectre of partisan involvement by the US in Cambodia's affairs, reminiscent of the Cold War.
The US position contrasted sharply with France's unwillingness to condemn the July events and their pragmatic argument that 'stability' should take precedence given the 'new political reality' in Cambodia. The lack of consensus between the two camps was not lost on Hun Sen, and was also evident before the coup. Furthermore, persisting tensions between Prince Ranariddh's Cabinet and the French Embassy, tensions which were often publicly, though not officially, expressed by both sides, also reassured Hun Sen that the response to his violent ouster of Prince Ranariddh would not be universally condemnatory. This proved to be true.
While the US role was key in bringing about Prince Ranariddh's participation in the elections, the limits of its principled approach soon became evident. With the refusal of the EU and Japan to place conditions on their electoral assistance, the capacity of the US to take a strong stand in influencing how the elections were conducted was diminished. While the US also publicly distanced itself from the Joint International Observation Group's premature decision to certify the elections as 'free and fair', the overwhelming response of other countries in support of it again undermined its position.
The ambiguity of the US position after the elections highlights the limits of a principled approach in dealing with Cambodia's problems when it is not adhered to consistently or when other countries do not adopt it. Without a search for greater international consensus, there is the very real risk that the policies of countries like France and the US – no matter how 'pragmatic' or 'principled' – will be seen to mask the pursuit of national interests.