Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Phnom Penh
January 27, 2015
Good morning! Thank you Your Royal Highness Prince Norodom Sirivudh, CICP Chairman, for the kind introduction. Please accept my best wishes for a happy New Year. It is wonderful to be back in Phnom Penh and with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace – a great organization that for more than 20 years has been informing the government and the public about important policy matters. Think tanks like CICP, along with civil society, are essential in U.S.; even when they criticize. So the U.S. supports such institutions in Cambodia and everywhere.
We are highlighting this and other events today on social media, which has become a powerful tool for interacting with one another. I encourage you to follow us on Twitter: @USAsiaPacific. I know our U.S. Embassy team has interacted with you. We have a great team here, led by Ambassador Todd. The caliber of our team shows the importance of the U.S.-Cambodia relationship. My last visit to the Kingdom of Cambodia was two years ago, traveling with President Obama. He decided to become the first serving American president to make the journey for many reasons.
Cambodia and America have much in common. The Khmer proverb “learn through study, become successful through hard work,” describes America’s attitude as well. Young people in both countries believe they can impact their society, and they translate those beliefs into action. We share a respect for cultural heritage, and Cambodia’s ancient civilization. We saw an example of this just last year, as the U.S. facilitated the return of ancient pre-Angkorian statues that were looted decades ago. And we share the connection of robust Cambodian-American communities that maintain ties to family and friends here.
These connections are an important reason why the United States has been so supportive of the Cambodian people for so many years – with over $1 billion in aid invested in the Cambodian people since the early 1990s. And our engagement has increased even more since President Obama began the rebalance to Asia policy in 2009. After listening to Cambodians about your needs, we’ve invested in many areas.
We’re investing in Cambodia’s most important resource, its people, through programs like our Global Health and Malaria Initiatives and PEPFAR, which fights AIDS. Our joint response to the Battambong HIV outbreak was a great example of public health collaboration to provide treatment and care for people in need. We have supported education through the Improved Basic Education in Cambodia (IBEC) project. We support agriculture and food security through Feed the Future, an innovative program that works directly with small farmers, connecting 72,000 of them with new technologies that help them produce more, and get their crops to market.
We support environmental preservation and cleaner electricity, sustainable agriculture, and more through the Lower Mekong Initiative, a major program that also brings together Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Looking comprehensively at a wide range of issues across the five countries, this initiative helps Cambodia and its neighbors plan and act together. We encourage Cambodia to be a responsible partner in the sustainable development of the river, for the benefit of all.
We support trade and investment, because even though U.S. government assistance is up 80% over the past decade, U.S. private sector investments can be even larger. Coca-Cola’s planned $100 million expansion is just the latest example. This highlights that the United States isn’t just Cambodia’s largest single-country export market; we’re also a major source of private investment. And the Embassy and our team back in Washington are always looking for new ways we can promote greater investment.
It’s not just the quantity of trade and investment that’s important, it’s the quality. Doing business with America means more training and skills development for Cambodian workers, and better labor and environmental standards that strengthen growth and improve the lives of regular people. For instance, through U.S. supported programs with Better Factories Cambodia and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, we are improving the work environment for thousands of garment workers, and helping them organize. Collective bargaining and improved communication between workers and employers will help them hold on to recent gains. And it will increase the stability of Cambodia’s growing economy.
That’s an overview of what we’re doing bilaterally. The rebalance to Asia also supports Cambodia regionally through our upgraded relations with the entire region, particularly with ASEAN. President Obama increased our engagement with ASEAN by opening an embassy and sending our first – and now second – resident ambassador, and by deciding to personally participate in the East Asia Summit.
We support ASEAN’s integration and development, such as the economic community set to launch this year. We also work with our many regional allies and partners, to promote rule of law and maintain stability throughout the region. Rule of law helps smaller nations like Cambodia protect their interests with bigger neighbors. And a stable international security environment is absolutely essential to the export industries that are employing so many Cambodian workers. Security means ships can carry your exports to market, and it underpins economic growth that creates middle class consumers across the region.
The President’s visit was also recognition of the political progress that your country has made. Beginning in 1989, when I served at the United Nations, I personally worked on the Paris Peace Accord negotiations with Dick Solomon and Ken Quinn, and helped in the development of UNTAC. And while he was a Senator, my boss Secretary Kerry helped establish and fund the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, beginning the long road to justice for the victims. As the Tribunal seeks to address the atrocities of the past, today’s leaders are working to build Cambodia’s future.
The election in 2013 was an important milestone. The country’s voters – especially young people – made a clear call for reform. We followed closely the CNRP’s boycott of parliament and the largely peaceful political demonstrations that followed. They showed the determination of the Cambodian people to ensure that their voices were both heard and respected. The agreement between the ruling and opposition parties was an important first step for reform. We have now seen parliament ensure government accountability by hosting hearings with Ministers. And both major parties acknowledge the importance of delivering on the people’s call for meaningful reform. The important thing is not to let up now! Both sides should keep focused on this priority.
Government and opposition working together is essential to addressing the urgent challenges facing your country, from corruption and human rights concerns, to labor issues and environmental protection. The decision to increase the minimum wage, and the successful, peaceful implementation of that decision, were important signs of progress. They were noted around the world – in both national capitals and corporate headquarters – and this action will help maintain Cambodia’s impressive economic growth. We welcomed last year’s political resolution and steps toward meaningful electoral reform, such as transparent voter registration and lists, and the creation of an independent electoral commission.
But there are still many challenges. I know the Cambodian people want to see sustained broad-based growth that raises incomes. Cambodians want the justice system they deserve – one that is fair, impartial, and applied equally. They want the government to do more to clamp down on corruption and increase respect for human rights. We are hopeful that Cambodia’s leaders will work together to boost efforts in these areas. But government is only one part of the story. Cambodia has good reason to be proud of its vibrant civil society, whose members are working diligently to make Cambodia and our world a better place.
Civil society is tremendously important because it provides a vital avenue for the Cambodian people to advocate for and implement the changes they desire. And as Cambodians across the political spectrum peacefully resolve disputes, your country can become a model for other emerging nations. America knows that the Cambodian people want the same things people around the world want – the opportunity to gain an education, to work hard and save money, to feel secure in their homes and on their land, and with their families.
Young Cambodians – the 70 percent of the country under the age of 30 – are the key to this future. Young Cambodians are more connected to each other, to the region and to the world than any previous generation, thanks to the country’s greater openness, and to new technology. We see this in the 380,000 Facebook fans of Embassy Phnom Penh who are in Cambodia, and the many more who like the page around the world. And America supports young Cambodians in many ways, including through academic exchanges, cultural programs, and English-language teaching.
President Obama’s exciting, new Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, or YSEALI, brings together youth from all ten ASEAN member countries. We helped Cambodians attend the YSEALI event President Obama held in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, and YSEALI is active throughout the year. We are thrilled that nearly 1,800 young Cambodians have joined YSEALI. This year, Embassy Phnom Penh is preparing to host the first YSEALI regional workshop of the year, focusing on environmental advocacy, responsibility, and teamwork. It will bring together more than 70 young leaders from throughout ASEAN in April, with a special focus on how members can help combat the effects of climate change. This is an urgent and important topic for Cambodia’s – and all of ASEAN’s – future. And there’s much more to come from YSEALI.
We also support Cambodians studying at U.S. colleges and universities. Last year, the number of Cambodians studying in the U.S. was about 400. We want to double this.
And to achieve that goal by 2020, we’re investing in English-language teaching and academic advising that will make your youths competitive and ready for success. When they finish their studies, we want them to return and apply their new skills in their communities across this beautiful country. Supporting youth by expanding education and business opportunities serve America’s interest in helping the Cambodian people transition your country into a sustainable and lasting democracy with an accountable government that respects human rights and encourages civic participation.
I’m interested in your thoughts on how we can do more toward that goal, and I look forward to our discussion. Thank you.