Press Statement by Secretary of State John Kerry

Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh
January 26, 2016

Sorry to be late, but it’s not a bad place to be marooned, I think. So good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for your patience. I am delighted to be back in Phnom Penh on my first visit here as Secretary of State. Cambodia’s journey, however, has long been personal for me, and I’m very grateful both for the warm welcome that we have received, as well as for Cambodia’s partnership on many of the shared challenges that we face.

Years ago, as a member of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I traveled here several times in the 1990s to try to help find a way to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable for the terrible events of the killing fields where nearly two million people were killed. And I worked with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the UN to help create a structure that became the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. And we were able to break a gridlock between the government and the UN that resulted in accountability for the crimes of the Pol Pot era. Now, not everybody paid the price of that court. Pol Pot himself died before, as did some others. But there are those in prison today as a result of its continued work and accountability still continues.

I also was very privileged to chair the United States Senate committee that sought a full accounting for Americans lost during the war in Southeast Asia. And this is an effort in which Cambodian support was both sought and given. I will never forget one of my last trips here, 1999 – not the last, but in 1999 — Ambassador Heidt was then an economic officer at the embassy. And on that visit I had the honor of meeting the late King Sihanouk and we discussed a shared common vision of a democratic, prosperous Cambodia at peace.

So I am very, very conscious, in returning here now in 2016, at the extraordinary distance that has been traveled by Cambodia, a country that has developed rapidly, seen its citizens now move into the – or just about to break the barrier of the lower end of middle income categorization. And this city, which, when I first came here, was a city of 350,000 people and a very war-torn economy is now a city of 2.2 million people with a very modern hospital, skyscrapers, enormous energy, and many, many tourists. So I am very conscious of how much progress has been made and how far we have traveled in our relationship.

Today I had candid and constructive meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. I also met with the acting head of the opposition, Kem Sokha. And just now, a few minutes ago, I was able to spend some time with members of Cambodian civil society, young people who are working so vigorously on land reform, on environment, on sustainable energy, on accountability, deforestation challenges. And in every meeting, in every meeting, I made clear that we are committed – we, the United States of America, are committed to the relationship between our country and Cambodia and we are committed to building on the progress that we have already made in education, health, cultural preservation.

I had the privilege of visiting the national cultural museum earlier this morning where artifacts have recently been returned from the United States to Cambodia. And that museum is an extraordinary asset, a goldmine of treasure from the past that tells the story of human development in this part of the world.

I made it clear also in my meetings today that it is our hope – I think it’s a global hope – that Cambodia will realize the full benefits of a thriving, multiparty democracy. We care deeply about respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and good governance. And progress in each of these areas is really critical to being able to fulfill the potential of our bilateral relations but also, importantly, the full potential of the hopes and aspirations of the Cambodian people. Today I also discussed with the Prime Minister the urgent challenge internationally of countering violent extremism. And we agreed that this is absolutely a top priority in the relationship between any country today. The Prime Minister expressed a deep interest in Cambodia working with our counter-Daesh coalition. He expressed an interest in having our teams, our experts, come in order to brief and exchange ideas and we agreed to do that. And we are going to continue to work to develop this in the Sunnylands summit when leaders of the ASEAN community and the President of the United States will sit down and have a in-depth dialogue.

I want to also emphasize that the United States is committed to developing our mutual economic relationship. Our trade and investment ties have long served to propel our relationship forward. We agree that it is very valuable for Cambodia to have a diverse set of trading partners. There is no choice between one partner or another; there is room for everybody, enormous capacity for growth. And I think it is actually quite remarkable that the United States is, in fact, Cambodia’s largest export market today even though we have half the world between our countries. Last November we held the first Competitiveness and Growth Dialogue between our countries. We now look forward to trade and investment framework agreement talks that will take place next month. And we will continue to explore ways to deepen our trade and investment relationship including by helping to tackle corruption and exploring ways to strengthen Cambodia’s legal institutions.

The United States and ASEAN have agreed that we now have a strategic partnership. That’s what we’re working at. And Cambodia plays a role in fully defining that partnership. President Obama and I really look forward to the summit in Sunnylands, in California. We look forward to welcoming the Prime Minister and his colleagues to the United States in February for the U.S. ASEAN summit that will take place at Sunnylands and then there is the later summit that will take place in Vientiane, Laos, which means we have a very busy joint schedule here in Southeast Asia.

Today I briefed the Prime Minister on the plans for the special summit at Sunnylands. And what it will do is really allow for a more relaxed, informal, but intensive dialogue between the leaders on a range of economic issues and security issues.

As we look ahead we should bear in mind that progress in our relationship requires directness, candor. Friends need to talk to friends telling them both what they see that is good and both what they see that needs improvement. And even on sensitive issues such as human rights this is imperative. In my discussions today I emphasized the essential role that a vibrant democratic system plays in the development of a country and in the legitimacy of its political system. Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free to perform their responsibilities without fear of attack or arrest. That is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government. So as Cambodians prepare for elections next year and again in 2018 it is very important to allow for vigorous but peaceful debate.

We work very closely with Cambodia to help develop programs to improve health and food security. We have a vibrant Fulbright program. We’ve sent several dozen Peace Corps volunteers to Cambodia to strengthen our relationship on a people-to-people basis. We are working diligently to develop sustainable development practices on the Mekong River. And we have the Lower Mekong Initiative, which focuses on many of these issues and joining all of the countries together. Our teams still cooperate to recover the remains of missing soldiers during the Vietnam War. And, importantly, the detritus of conflict, the detritus of war that has exacted a painful price on Cambodians as unexploded ordnance continues to take life and limbs, that is a critical part of our agenda and a mission that is not yet complete and that we remain committed to end at the appropriate time when we have done our job.

So that is why – all of those reasons are why we are working with Cambodia to eliminate not just the painful reminders of a long war but to define the future, which is very, very different and distant from that war. That is why we have been connected to Cambodia for years and is why we remain connected in these important endeavors together.

In closing, I’d just emphasize the United States takes pride in its history as an Asia-Pacific nation. And we intend to remain deeply engaged in the future of this important region. We are deeply committed to that. That is why I am here now. I think this is my seventh or eighth trip since I became Secretary and it will not be the last this year by any means of the imagination. We are deeply committed to our partnership with Cambodia and with all the members of ASEAN on a regional and global basis. And we look forward to the talks in Sunnylands as the next step in building this continued relationship. Thank you all very much. Thank you.