PHNOM PENH (AP) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responded positively to a letter from United States President Donald Trump that assured him Washington does not seek regime change and encouraged him to promote democracy and improve strained relations between the countries.
A letter from Mr Hun Sen, dated Tuesday (Nov 26) and shared online on Wednesday by members of his government, accepted Mr Trump's invitation to a meeting of South-east Asian leaders in the US early next year, as well as an offer for the countries' foreign policy teams to hold talks.
Washington has long criticised Mr Hun Sen's government for its poor record on democracy and human rights. Mr Hun Sen, in power for 34 years, has accused the US of seeking to oust him.
Mr Trump's Nov 1 letter assured Mr Hun Sen that the US does not seek regime change. The President counselled Mr Hun Sen to "put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance".
"I am reassured by your explicit statement whereby you seek genuine engagement to pursue democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law rather than through regime change," Mr Hun Sen wrote.
The Cambodian prime minister has a reputation as an authoritarian leader and has said he intends to serve until 2028. He has been quick to crack down on any opponents, accusing them of seeking a "colour revolution" that up-ended regimes in Eastern and Central Europe and the Middle East.
There are some signs he seeks to polish up his image, including the recent release from detention of members of the opposition.
He faces external political pressure that ballooned after last July's general election, in which his Cambodian People's Party won all 125 National Assembly seats.
The European Union and others charged that the election was unfair and unfree because the sole credible opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved in November 2017 by Cambodia's Supreme Court.
The EU is now considering whether to end duty-free and quota-free imports from Cambodia because of concerns about its poor record in human and labour rights.
A cutoff could badly hurt Cambodia's economy, especially the clothing and footwear industry that is the country's top export sector, employing nearly 800,000 people in about 1,000 garment and shoe factories. In 2018, the South-east Asian country shipped nearly US$10 billion (S$13.66 billion) worth of products to the US and Europe.
Mr Trump's letter recounted positive elements of the US-Cambodian relationship in the past, while acknowledging "difficulties" in recent years.
"With regards to the bilateral relations between our two countries, I concur with you that they have gone through periods of ups and downs," Mr Hun Sen wrote. "However, I am of the view that we should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history."
He said contemporary Cambodia owes its prosperity in part to "the contribution of the American people and government from the peaceful democratisation, to the nation building, social governance, and the generous market access."
Mr Hun Sen has rarely had such warm words for the US in recent years, as Cambodia leaned towards China, which has become its major political and economic backer, and with which it also has increasingly close military links.
During a 2017 crackdown on the media and political foes, an opposition leader was arrested for alleged treason because he had taken part in a seminar led by a US democracy promotion organisation.