No plans to cut aid to Cambodia, despite crackdown on opposition - MFAT

Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia.
Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia. Photo credit: Reuters

New Zealand won't be following the United States' lead and cutting aid to Cambodia.

The US announced last week it would suspend a number of aid programmes, after what it called "setbacks" to democracy in the southeast Asian country.

The main opposition leader was arrested in September last year and his party dissolved. An independent English-language newspaper was forced to close that same month, allegedly over unpaid tax bills - its final front page blaring the headline 'Descent into Outright Dictatorship'.

And in February's Senate election, Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party won all 58 seats, with 96 percent of the vote. In a statement, the White House said the election "failed to represent the genuine will of the Cambodian people".

"These setbacks compelled the United States to review its assistance to Cambodia to ensure that American taxpayer funds are not being used to support anti-democratic behaviour."

The US has spent $1 billion over the past 25 years helping Cambodia, much of it on clearing land mines laid during the Indochina Wars, which raged for decades in the mid-20th century. 

New Zealand is currently helping Cambodia with a  three-year, $27 million aid package. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it had no plans to reduce this commitment.

"In all development projects, MFAT actively considers the wider and often rapidly changing political environment in a country, ensuring the resourcing of, and benefits from, an aid project do not create or support adverse outcomes," a spokesperson told Newshub.

"In all places in which the New Zealand Aid Programme works, we have systems in place to minimise the risk of corruption. The ministry is monitoring developments in Cambodia very closely."

MFAT pointed to comments made by Foreign Minister Winston Peters in November about the "latest blow to Cambodia's democracy".

"There is now a serious question over the legitimacy of Cambodia's general election next year, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen will stand largely unchallenged," Mr Peters said.

While at first saying it was "shocked" by the White House's decision to cut aid, Cambodia has since accused the US of dishonesty, claiming it's received nothing since 2016.

"Please, US Ambassador, answer this one question," Mr Sen said on Saturday. "Why did you announce cutting aid while there is no aid? Do you intend to distort the reputation of Cambodia?"

The US declined to comment on Mr Sen's claims.