CAMBODIA: Welcoming tourists and investors
Thomas Cromwell

Cambodia is a country that has been long in finding its feet in the modern world of democracies and market economies. Some 21 years of war, between 1969 and 1990, left deep scars on the nation and its people, from the ravages of civil war, US bombing and a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, to the genocide conducted by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Today, 75 percent of the population is still engaged in subsistence farming in rural areas that have yet to see modern infrastructure. But clothing manufacture employs some 200,000 workers, tourism is developing rapidly, and oil and gas deposits have been found offshore, raising the prospects of a much-need source of national income.

Since the time when Cambodia was caught up in regional conflicts, especially the Vietnam War and its spillover, it has looked to China as a "good friend." America was not a close ally because of Washington’s agenda in Vietnam, one of two “difficult neighbors” in the words of Cambodia’s ambassador to Washington, Sereywath Ek. The other one is Thailand.

China continues to be Cambodia’s main ally, and is the leading investor there, in everything from hotels to pharmaceuticals. “We need China for our development,” the ambassador says. “China has helped us maintain our independence.” However, over half of all the country’s exports go to the United States, $1.6 billion last year (against $500 million in imports from America), and it is exclusively US oil companies, notably Chevron, that are developing the offshore fields.

Ambassador Ek arrived in Washington a year ago, after a posting as ambassador in Manila. Before that he was deputy defense minister responsible for policy, international relations and procurement. Purchasing weapons, however, is not a reason he was sent to Washington, since the Cambodian military uses Russian and Chinese weapons systems primarily.

The ambassador sees three main areas that he needs to tackle in Washington. The first is to improve overall relations with the US government, which has been concerned with several issues, including human rights abuses, human trafficking, corruption and deforestation. He says that currently “we have good cooperation with the State Department,” and the Defense Department is helping Cambodia develop an anti-terror unit.

His second task is providing services to the 400,000 Cambodians who live in America. Many have done well and are prosperous. And some of them are returning to Cambodia as investors. Two have returned to take up jobs as government ministers, for education and public works.

Third on his agenda is improving relations with the US Congress. Ambassador Ek says that his country has been sharply criticized on the Hill, but that attitudes are changing after all political prisoners have been released and Phnom Penh has encouraged visits by members of Congress and other interested individuals and organizations.

The ambassador notes that few Asian leaders have welcomed domestic criticism, citing Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mohamed Mahathir of Malaysia. In the case of Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been premier since 1985 and has often asserted his authority to shore up his rule.

Nevertheless, Cambodia has held elections and is due for another national round in 2008. At the same time, economic necessities opened the country to the rest of the world. “ If you try to close off your economy, you are dead,” the ambassador points out.

The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are both providing significant funding to help Cambodia catch up to its Southeast Asian neighbors. The country needs everything from airports and seaports, to roads, electricity and telecommunications. The number of Internet users in this country of 13.6 million is still only counted in the tens of thousands.

Ambassador Ek points out that there are a number of opportunities for US companies to get involved in infrastructure projects, especially road and port construction, as well as electricity generation and distribution. He says a highway built by the Americans from Phnom Penh to the sea in 1960 is still in good shape and a good advertisement for US engineering and construction abilities.

In the meantime, the government has instituted business-friendly laws and policies and is making efforts to diversify the economy away from its recent dependence on textiles, especially after China a year ago began to dominate world markets with its huge apparel exports, unfettered by quotas or WTO restrictions. Agricultural products, fish, lobsters, rice and rubber, all offer promise, the ambassador says.

Another very promising area is tourism. Last year, Cambodia had some 1.2 million visitors, who generated $800 million in income for the country. This year the number is expected to jump to 2 million, producing over $1 billion in revenues. With “thousands of temples” and a culture known to the world through silk-wrapped images of the Kingdom, a stable Cambodia has much to offer travelers, especially those seeking new and exotic places. 

The ambassador says tourism is another attractive field for investment, although so far US hospitality chains have remained reluctant to go there. Near the Angkor Wat Temples there are five first class hotels now, with more being built in various parts of the country. He says Cambodia today is “100 percent safe for tourists.”

Ambassador Ek says that Cambodia is fully cooperating with Washington in the war on terror. The three madrasas in the country have been closed down since 9/11, and Muslims acting in a suspicious manner have been reported to US authorities. In return, the United States is providing computers for border posts, and other assistance. Last year, US aid in all fields amounted to $44 million, of which $20 million was provided by USAID.

The royal family was restored to the throne in 1993 and remains highly popular among the people. Former King Norodom Sihanouk, now receiving medical treatment in Beijing, is revered as father of the modern nation. His 53-year-old son was installed as King Norodom Sihamoni in October 2004, and is also widely popular, the ambassador says. As in Thailand, the monarch’s role is largely ceremonial, but his word carries weight with the people and government.

Curriculum Vitae of Ambassador Sereywath Ek

Date of Birth: January 1, 1954

Place of Birth: Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

Marital Status: Married with two children


University of Paris IX, Sorbonne, France  
South East Asian Studies

Institute of Political Studies (Science-Po) (IEP), Diplomatic Section, Paris, France
Received a Master in Political Science in 1974
Lycee Descartes French High School, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Received a Cambodian High School Diploma in 1969
Received a French High School Diploma in 1970 (Baccalaureate)

Petit Lycee Descartes French Junior High School, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Work Experiences:

Dec. 2004
Royal Embassy of Cambodia, Washington DC, U.S.A.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Mar. - Nov. 2004
Senate, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Senator of the Kingdom of Cambodia
Royal Embassy of Cambodia, Manila, the Philippines
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Dec. 1998
National Assembly, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Elected Member of Parliament for Takeo Province

Ministry of National Defense, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Secretary of State (Vice-Minister)

Jul - Nov. 1993
Ministry of Information, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Vice-Minister during the provisional government of Cambodia

May 1993 - Jun. 1998
National Assembly, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Elected Member of Parliament for Phnom Penh Constituency

FUNCINPEC Information Office, Bangkok, Thailand

FUNCINPEC Information Office, Bangkok, Thailand
Deputy Director

Cambodian Center, Paris, France
Editor of newsletter at the Cambodian center in Paris

LE FIGARO,Paris, France
Journalist for French Daily Newspaper

Foreign Languages: French, English and Thai