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In reversal, Cambodia's Hun Sen offers U.S. new 'bond of friendship'

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By Reuters
In reversal, Cambodia's Hun Sen offers U.S. new 'bond of friendship'
FILE PHOTO: Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a celebrations marking the 66th anniversary of the country's independence from France, in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 9, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring/File Photo   -   Copyright  Pring Samrang(Reuters)

By Prak Chan Thul and Kay Johnson

PHNOMPENH (Reuters) – Cambodia’s authoritarian leader Hun Sen has offered to renew friendship with the United States after receiving a letter from President Donald Trump, a turnaround in relations with the country he once accused of conspiring to overthrow him.

A letter dated Nov. 26 from Hun Sen to Trump thanked him for assurances that Washington was not seeking “regime change” in Cambodia.

Both countries foreign affairs teams should now work “to restore trust and confidence, and renew the bond of friendship between our two countries and peoples”, he added in the letter seen by Reuters.

The rapprochement comes after Cambodia, one of China’s closest allies in Asia, had threatened to turn its back on both the United States and the European Union (EU) over their criticism of political repression.

Less than four months ago, a Cambodian official said U.S. diplomats should “pack up and leave” after a U.S. embassy statement that the 2018 election did not reflect the will of the people.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) won all 125 parliamentary seats in the election after the Supreme Court disbanded the main opposition party.

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party was accused of plotting to take power with U.S. help, and its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested on treason charges.

Kem Sokha was released from house arrest earlier this month, though the treason charges remain, as the EU moved closer to cutting off preferential trade status over human rights, though a final decision is months away.

Hun Sen’s letter followed one from Trump seeking to improve ties but also urging him to put Cambodia back on a democratic path.

The Cambodian leader, in power for more than three decades, acknowledged tumultuous periods in U.S. relations.

“However, I am of the view that we should not become hostage of a few dark chapters in our history,” he wrote. “There are so many other beautiful chapters that are worth nourishing for the greater good of both our countries and people.”

Hun Sen referred to U.S. support for nation building after decades of civil war that ended in the 1990s and “generous market access”.

“I am indeed thankful and truly appreciate these magnanimous gestures,” the letter read.

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)