PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sun has signaled he would welcome better relations with the United States after a conciliatory letter from President Donald Trump and a meeting with Washington's new envoy.
Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page a summary of the Nov. 1 letter from Trump, along with an account of how he told Ambassador Patrick Murphy about Cambodia's goodwill toward the United States.
Washington has long been critical of Hun Sen's poor record on human rights and democracy. It has taken a sterner attitude since Cambodia's Supreme Court in late 2017 dissolved the sole credible opposition party, which ensured that Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party would win the 2018 general election.
Trump’s letter, a copy of which was leaked Friday, recounted positive past elements of the U.S. Cambodian relationship, while acknowledging “difficulties” in recent years.
The president reassured Hun Sen that the United States “respects the sovereign will of the Cambodian people and we do not seek regime change.”
Hun Sen has been in power for 34 years and has said he intends to serve until 2028. He has been quick to crack down on any opposition, accusing them of seeking a “color revolution” of the sort that upended established regimes in Eastern and Central Europe and the Middle East. The late 2017 crackdown saw an opposition leader arrested for alleged treason because he had taken part in a seminar led by a U.S. democracy promotion organization.
Trump counseled Hun Sen to “put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance.”
“As a first step, I hope you would re-evaluate certain decisions taken by your government that the United States firmly believes puts at great risk the Kingdom (of) Cambodia’s long-term sovereignty, stability, and economic development.”
The letter did not elaborate, but the advice appeared to be a reference to Cambodia’s relations with China, which has become its major political and economic backer, and with which it also has increasingly close military links. Beijing has promoted itself to much of Southeast Asia as a friendly ally that doesn’t make aid contingent on honoring human rights.
Trump’s letter ended with an offer to have the two countries’ foreign policy teams commence discussions.
Ahead of the 2016 U.S. election, Hun Sen publicly expressed his preference for Trump, saying “If Trump wins, the world might change and it might be better, because Trump is a businessman and a businessman does not want war.”
He said that Hillary Clinton as president would have difficult relations with Russia, “But if Trump wins, Trump and Putin might become friends.”
In his Facebook post, Hun Sen also said he told Ambassador Murphy on Thursday that he was grateful to the United States for frequently giving support to Cambodia, even before it got its independence from France in 1953.
"This gesture is witness that friendship and good cooperation between the two countries existed quite some time ago," Hun Sen wrote.
Hun Sen said he had also accepted an invitation from Trump, in a separate letter to leaders of all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to attend a special summit meeting in the U.S. sometime in the first quarter of next year.
Murphy arrived to take his post in September and has generally avoided heated rhetoric in his public comments while affirming U.S. policy promoting human rights and democracy, presenting the possibility for a face-saving opportunity to improve relations.