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Cambodian leader wants US Peace Corps out

September 15, 2017

Cambodia has told the US to withdraw Peace Corps volunteers, and will stop cooperating with a project to find the remains of American soldiers. Washington and Phnom Penh are engaged in a tit-for-tat diplomatic spat.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
Image: Imago/Xinhua

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hit back at the United States over a visa ban Friday in a speech to garment workers who export much of what they make to the US.

"Are you prepared to invade Cambodia and that's why you told Americans to be careful? It's good if you pull out the Peace Corps," Hun Sen said, referring to the United States, in response to a travel warning issued by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh urging citizens to show caution amid "anti-American rhetoric by officials."

The US Peace Corps is an initiative launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 which sends American volunteers abroad with the stated goal of promoting world peace and friendship.

Diminishing relations

It came a day after Hun Sen announced his country would stop cooperating with a US defense department program to recover the remains of Vietnam war-era soldiers missing in action.

"Cambodia tells the US that its cooperation with finding the remains of Americans missing in Cambodia... is suspended temporarily," Hun Sen said. The move was in response to the US announcing it would stop issuing visas to senior Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials and their families.

"You do to me, I also do to you," said the premier, a close ally of China who has dominated Cambodian politics for the past three decades.

Tensions over repatriation

Washington halted the visas in retaliation for Cambodia's refusal to take in Cambodian nationals deported from the US after being convicted of crimes there. About 500 Cambodians have been forcibly ejected from the US since 2002. Some of them had migrated as children and had little prior experience of Cambodian culture and language. Hun Sen said Cambodia wanted to renegotiate the repatriation deal, which he described as "bad and inhumane."

Read more: US-Cambodian returnees: Thrust into a world they never knew

Hun Sen said Cambodia's help in finding the remains of more than 40 US soldiers missing since the Vietnam War depended on Washington addressing the visa ban issue. The US has taken the same visa ban action against three other countries - Eritrea, Sierra Leone and Guinea - for similar issues.

Cambodian politician Kem Sokha
Opposition leader Kem Sokha was accused of treasonImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Jailed opposition leader

The diplomatic standoff comes at a time of heightened tensions between Cambodia and the US. Hun Sen has accused the US of colluding with now-jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha to overthrow his government.

Read more: Cambodia opposition leader charged with treason, espionage

Kem Sokha would have been Hun Sen's major challenger in general elections planned for next year. His Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had made massive gains in local elections held in June. Other critical voices, including NGOs and press outlets critical of Hun Sen, have been shut down.

On Tuesday, US Ambassador William Heidt warned Cambodia's democracy was in peril and called the allegation that the US had assisted Kem Sokha with a treason plot "inaccurate, misleading and baseless."

se/kms (dpa, Reuters, AP, AFP)