Cambodia on Friday defended its decision to hire a U.S lobbying firm to advocate for the government and boost its reputation abroad, while the opposition party and an NGO said the money being paid is a waste of the national budget.
An RFA investigative report on Thursday disclosed that the government signed a contract with Washington, D.C., firm Qorvis Communications for U.S. $69,300 a month to “provide strategic communications and media relations services in support of increasing public awareness along with travel and tourism” for Cambodia.
The contract was signed by Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, Chum Sounry, on Sept. 15, according to a filing made two days later and viewable on a website that records the registration of agents who represent foreign governments in the U.S.
The move is an attempt by the increasingly autocratic government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to try to salvage Cambodia’s tarnished reputation over human rights violations and crackdowns on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGOs, which prompted U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.
The Cambodian government also signed contracts with two other lobbying firms in 2019.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was unaware of the details of the deal, calling it a legitimate agreement similar to ones made by other countries that have hired lobbyists to advocate abroad for them.
“It is a norm and a source of income for the U.S.A,” he said.
RFA could not reach the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for comment.
Um Sam Ath, a senior official with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA that the government should use the money from the national budget to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic rather than pay a foreign firm to improve its image in the U.S.
The Cambodian government hired Qorvis to try to prevent the U.S. from imposing further sanctions on officials for human rights violations, Um Sam Ath said, adding that he believes the effort will fail to convince the Biden administration to stop such action.
Only the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights will prevent additional sanctions, he said.
“Phnom Penh’s regime should not spend money on the lobbying firm to protect its reputation,” said Um Sam Ath.
“On the contrary, it should restore democracy by holding free and fair elections and allowing the CNRP to participate, and restore human rights. Only then will the international community regain confidence in the government,” he said.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said that the Cambodian government should use diplomatic channels to lobby the Biden administrations, rather than spending money to try to boost its image globally.
“It’s sad because Cambodians are still living under the poverty level, and many people are being affected by COVID-19,” he said.
“We should use the budget to develop the country,” Yong Kim Eng said.
“In general, Cambodia should reflect on its policies and try to improve them rather than hiring a lobbying firm. If there are no improvements, then the lobbyists won’t be able to help.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.