Press Roundtable with Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel

Press Roundtable with Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel [Photo by Un Yarat]
U.S. Embassy, Phnom Penh
October 27, 2016

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel:
Ok. Thanks for coming and let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be back in Cambodia. This has been a big year in terms of U.S.-Cambodia relations in 2016. We had the very I think successful visit of Secretary Kerry in January. A visit that not only let us engage at high levels and across the broad spectrum of Cambodian society but most memorably allowed us to spend some time at the National Museum, experience more of the incredible culture of this great country. The president was pleased to host the prime minister in the United States for the Sunnyland -US ASEAN leaders’ summit. That was pretty great and offered an opportunity for a lot of very good and valuable discussions. The leaders worked together at the ASEAN and East Asia Summit a month or so ago. This is the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement, which the U.S. is pleased to have had a hand in bringing about. Tourism is up. Student exchange is up. Trade is up and investment is up. It has been a good year and it is not over. I’m here as part of the regular pattern of consultation that we have developed. I was able to meet just as recently a month ago with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn when he was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, and I wanted to keep the conversation going. We got a lot to plan. A lot to talk about and a lot to work on, both in terms of our bilateral relationship, regional issues and of course meeting global challenges. It is also part of the regular effort I make to engage substantially with all the ASEAN countries. Southeast Asia is an extremely important region to the United States and I just was in Bangkok before coming here. I was in Manila prior to that. I have other travel to other ASEAN countries planned involving some counterparts I’ll be able to see at APAC this year. And look we are working on planning for 2017 and 2017 will be a big year. Also first and foremost we want to keep the momentum and progress growing. Secondly, in the United States of course the new government, a new president will take office January 20th. And there is a lot of planning that goes into painting a picture and offering recommendations to the new administration about what our bilateral relationship is with Cambodia and more broadly our engagement with ASEAN is capable of achieving in 2017. We’ll also see important local municipal elections in Cambodia. So making sure there is an ongoing discussion and consultations with not only the government but also the political opposition and civil society is a priority and for that reason I spent some time with representatives, with leaders of civil society. I can tell you as a diplomat I have learned as much I can get at my desk in Washington. There is no substitute for showing up and the ability to come to Phnom Penh and meet as I did today with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn. To meet as I did with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng. To meet with the opposition leader Kem Sokha. The civil society leaders I referred to — no disrespect to the distinguished political leaders I mentioned _ but far and away the most satisfying and the most fun was being able to spend some time at Pannasastra University where I meet with a really exciting, and inspiring group of students and young people many of whom are active participants in the program initiated by President Obama YSEALI. The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and lastly and not least today afforded me the opportunity to spend some time with Ambassador Heidt and the Embassy team here getting a sense of how our programs are faring. Where we are on the spectrum of our priorities, whether it is on trade or the protection of American citizens or the provision of visas and services to Cambodians to study and play and shop and work in the United States. Whether it is our cooperation on law enforcement or combating narcotics or dealing with the legacy of the war in terms of POW-MIA or mines or any of the other areas of important cooperation. So I will stop there if you have any question. I will be happy to try and answer them.

VOA America: What is the United States response to the Philippines foreign policy, and what is next for the United States and dealing with the Philippines? (Question paraphrased due to difficulty of audio.)

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: Our response to the Philippines is that they can count on the United States as a friend, as a partner, as an ally. We share tremendous common interests, and because we respect the sovereignty and autonomy and independence of the Philippines as we always have. We stand ready to work with the government in the areas the government seeks to work with us. And that is very much the approach we take with Cambodia as well. Cambodia isn’t a treaty ally of the United States, but, at the same time, we are able to find valuable ways for our militaries to cooperate and train together. There is not as long a shared history between Cambodia and the United States as there is with the Philippines and the U.S. There aren’t four and a half-million Cambodians in the U.S. But there are many Cambodian-Americans who contribute immensely to our society and our culture, and the history we do share with Cambodia is unique and is very special. I have the honor of having participated in the negotiations back in the late 1980s at the United Nations where I served at the U.S. Mission that helped lay the groundwork for both the Paris Accords and UNTAC. I was a member of the delegation, the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace talks, led by Dick Solomon and Ken Quinn and many other close friends of Cambodia. And the fact that 25 years have passed and Cambodia has achieved so much is inspirational so those are a few of the reasons that I want to talk about Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Post: The last 12 months or so have seen politically motivated cases against the opposition party. One leader of the opposition party is in exile, the other is in the headquarters avoiding arrest. How do you see the state of Cambodia’s democracy, and, as it travels to elections, where do you see the U.S. can help improve things or make a difference?

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: Not surprisingly of the thing I asked all my interlocutors about is the political situation here and the prospects for the elections in 2017. I don’t’ know and I’m not sure the extent to which the government. has clarified the status of Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition party who is overseas now, and I had a chance to spend some time talking with Kem Sokha, the acting head of the opposition. There clearly is not adequate inter-party dialogue, and the fact that the ruling party and the opposition party have yet to come to acceptable terms on the way forward is a matter of concern to all of Cambodia’s friends.

Cambodia is by virtue of its constitution, the Paris Accords and the will of the people has elected a multi-party democracy. Very much our hope is it will operate as a multi-party democracy. Without a doubt we want to see an environment where political actors can campaign and operate in safety with freedom throughout the country. We hope that the elections in 2017 will enable all of Cambodia’s citizens, I’m told you are looking at something on the order of 10 million voters, to exercise their rights in safety, without coercion and for their votes to count. In other words for Cambodia to hold free and fair elections.

Phnom Penh Post: Would you consider free and fair elections if the leader of the opposition was not able to compete?

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: Saying that this is a question that has an if in it, and my mother told me when I was little I should steer clear of it because it has a hypothetical. The point is that an environment in which, number 1, the mechanics of the election, the balloting, the campaigning, the vote processing, meet the standards of international scrutiny, and an election in which the parties are able to actively campaign and the leaders are free to put forward their platforms and to operate on equal footing. A campaign in which, or an election in which, at the end of the day, the country accepts the people have spoken. This is the goal not only for the United States and the international community but certainly for Cambodia itself.

This is as it always is a work in progress. It is politics. It is built on the foundation of compromise. It is built on the foundation of consensus and the constitution and the principles that underpin the Cambodian contract. So the United States will extend a helping hand. We do not support one party in a democratic election. We don’t take a partisan position. We don’t take sides. We are strongly committed to assisting to help to create an environment that is conducive to the free and fair exercise of democratic rights and the mechanics there of. And we have any number of organizations IFES, NDI, IRI, as well as the assistance that can be available through the Embassy and the USAID to offer support if asked and if as needed to helping in the electoral process.

Thmey Thmey Online News: You have met the secretary of state in Thailand, the secretary of state in Cambodia. What do you think of the situation in regards to human rights, law and democracy in Cambodia? And on the U.S. rebalance in Asia, now that the Obama administration is leaving and the Philippines are pulling away from the United States, do you think there is a failure of this pivot:? (Question paraphrased due to difficulty of audio.)

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: In terms of human rights, Cambodia, which has experienced some of the most horrifying suffering of any nation or any people on earth, today has very impressive laws on the books to protect human rights and these are Cambodian laws. We believe it is in the best interest of the Cambodian people and the Cambodian nation to be adhered to. These are Cambodian laws, they also reflect rights that are universal. Protecting the rights and the basic freedoms of all of our citizens is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. Societies that respect their citizens and protect their legal, human, and civil rights tend to flourish.

And there is a direct correlation, in my opinion and experience. A culture that respects the law is a culture that produces innovation, entrepreneurship, and prosperity. That is particularly important in Southeast Asia because there are so many youthful and dynamic economics in the region. Cambodia can gain not only sustainability for its own citizens but advance in the competitive economic environment through adherence to the law of rule and respect for citizens.

Not only a matter of principle but also a matter of pragmatism. The progress Cambodia has made over time in human rights is a well-known story and every time I come here I see examples and stories that show me that there is progress to point to. But we are equally aware of the problems and the challenges that Cambodia struggles with as do other countries including my own. And rather than past judgments I am here to consult, to offer help, and to put my head together with both my colleagues and my Cambodian counterparts on how we can advance the goals of due process, rule of law, civil rights, human rights, and economic growth. and do so in a collaborative manner. The issue of the rebalance or the pivot … let’s remember the pivot isn’t a sport where we keep score on a zero sum basis. It is instead a strategic engagement by the United States in the stability and growth of the Asia-Pacific. The rebalance isn’t something the United States is doing to other countries. We are participating in the growth of the Asia-Pacific region. Number 1, because we are a Pacific country ourselves. Number 2, our economic future is inextricably linked to that of the region. Number. 3 because stability and security in the Asia-Pacific benefits and protects not only the people of Asia but the people of the United States

The ups and downs in any bilateral relationship don’t offer a verdict on the value of American engagement. The history of US-Philippines relations, for example, includes some scratchy chapters. Look back at 1992. I think the situation in 2016, however, is much more encouraging. The area of common interest between the United States and the Philippines, and I would argue between the U.S. and the ASEAN countries, is large and growing larger. The rebalance is not something that can be labeled with terms like success or failure. The only failure would be if the United State were to turn its back on our partners in the region.

Cambodia Daily: Do you think there will be different election results in 2017 and 2018?

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: I’m a believer in human progress. I’m a believer that people and countries learn from experience and they learn from their mistakes.. And I’m a believer in the power of civil society. Cambodian society is growing. Cambodian economy is growing. More and more young people are coming into the society with education. The maturation of the ASEAN community and the benefits that the ASEAN countries share, these are among the many drivers of progress that directly benefit Cambodia, and I think are germane to every exercise of democratic rights.

I think that not only Cambodia, but the region and the world has learned also from experience elsewhere. The very successful election in Myanmar, while it is still early days, the civil society leaders and NGO representatives with whom I’ve had a chance to talk leave me with the impression that so far there is measurable and considerable progress in the preparations for the elections themselves. There are a lot of rivers to cross before Cambodia can point to fully free and fair elections in 2017. But the experience of the previous seven election, the experience of Cambodia’s neighbors, and the growth and maturation of Cambodian society, combined with the helping hand of Cambodia’s friends throughout the world can lead to a better electoral process.