A U.S. senator is seeking to apply economic and political pressure on Cambodia's long-time prime minister to resign or reform - just as the country conducted peaceful elections.
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell's proposals have set off a deep controversy in Cambodia, right in the middle of an election campaign.
Mr. McConnell, a Republican, is close to Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy. He is also a sharp critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, blaming him and his party for voter intimidation and repression of dissidents.
Mr. McConnell recently called Cambodia "the Zimbabwe of Southeast Asia." In a commentary published in the Boston Globe Saturday and reprinted in Cambodia, Mr. McConnell called Hun Sen and his ruling party "a major impediment to sustainable development in Cambodia and to prospects for free and fair elections." He has introduced a bill in the Senate that would make U.S. aid levels contingent on Hun Sen's departure.
This has landed a U.S. delegation of election observers in a difficult position. The International Republican Institute, an arm of the U.S. Republican Party, sent a 60-member delegation led by Christine Todd Whitman to Cambodia, to observe the elections. The IRI had already conducted electoral training for Cambodian political parties.
As a result of Mr. McConnell's proposals linking U.S. aid to Hun Sen's departure, the IRI found itself on the defensive when its observer delegation arrived.
Ms. Whitman was quizzed about the McConnell proposals almost everywhere she went. She staunchly defended IRI's neutrality, saying the institute has nothing to do with Mr. McConnell or his proposals.
"It is an expression of the opinion of the senators who have sponsored the bill. And they do indicate that they would like to see a regime change, no question about it. But there's no relationship between those senators and the International Republican Institute," Ms. Whitman said.
But Gordon Longmuir, who was Canada's ambassador to Cambodia from 1995 to 1999, says many Cambodians do not see the distinction between an individual senator and the U.S. government.
"The opposition is obviously using it. It's in their interest to use statements like that so that they can say that the United States is backing them. I'm not sure there's a strong recognition here about the difference between what somebody says in the Senate and what the position of the U.S. administration is," Mr. Longmuir said.
He said there is a strong perception - especially in the government - that the IRI was coming with its own political agenda. "The government is rather wary of IRI because its program here has been to support opposition parties, to train them and so on to compete better in the democratic process in Cambodia. And that can be read as support for the major opposition party. … That is a perception, certainly, in Cambodia," Mr. Longmuir said.
But Ms. Whitman points out that IRI has provided training to all political parties, not just opposition ones. She said the IRI is not backing any party. "The important thing here is that the United States is involved with Cambodia, does want to see a free expression of the will of the Cambodian people in an open election process, but is not predetermined on the outcome," Ms. Whitman said.
The IRI is only one of a number of international observer groups who fanned out across Cambodia to monitor the elections and the ballot counting.