By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
As U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy is charged with representing the United States in Cambodia.
Part of this job includes strengthening the relationship between the two countries—and the roughly 330,000 people of Cambodian descent living in the United States play a significant role in this relationship. So when the Seattle-Sihanoukville Sister City Association (Sea-Sih) invited him to visit Seattle and meet with the local Cambodian American community, Murphy accepted, telling Northwest Asian Weekly that it was a “great opportunity.”
But with a job that requires him to spend most of his time overseas, it wasn’t until June 27 that this opportunity came to fruition. Murphy’s one-day visit to Seattle was part of his first international trip in about a year. It came at the tail end of his visit to the United States, having spent a few days in the other Washington prior to coming to the Emerald City, and then returning to Cambodia.
Murphy’s time in Seattle included meeting with members of the local Cambodian American community and representatives from the Port of Seattle, visiting the University of Washington’s Southeast Asia Center, and meeting members of the school’s Khmer Student Association. Murphy concluded his visit with a dinner reception at China Harbor in Seattle—organized by Sea-Sih and Cambodian American Community Council of Washington (CACCWA).
“We are lucky, very, very lucky,” Bill Oung, CACCWA co-founder and interim board chair, said about Murphy’s experience and his willingness to meet with the community. “[Seattle is] a community that is important to him, to the [U.S. Embassy in Cambodia].”
Murphy was appointed to the ambassadorship in August 2019. Prior to this position, his work in the U.S. Foreign Service began in 1992. He has completed diplomatic assignments in Burma (Myanmar), China, Iraq, Guinea, and Mali. His most recent positions include leading the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs as senior bureau official (acting assistant secretary of state) from 2018-2019, and serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia from 2016-2018.
During his remarks at the reception, Murphy told attendees it was a pleasure to visit Seattle, commenting on the region’s love for coffee as well as the heatwave that coincided with his visit—something many had brought up to him. Donning a dark blue suit, he reminded the crowd that he spends most of his time in Cambodia.
“You forget where you come from,” Murphy joked, getting a laugh from a room filled with many folks who had emigrated from the tropical country.
Cambodia and COVID-19
In his speech, Murphy discussed the state of Cambodia, including how the country was impacted during the pandemic.
With COVID-19 limiting travel in recent years, the overseas programs at Sea-Sih—which focuses on cultural exchange between Seattle and Cambodia’s seaport city of Sihanoukville—have paused. This was one of the reasons Murphy’s visit to Seattle was important to the local Cambodian community, Sea-Sih board member Thyda Ros said. It was a chance for them to learn about what has been happening in Cambodia, how COVID-19 is being addressed, people’s access to health care, and how the pandemic has impacted the economy and people’s livelihoods.
“This is something our community wants to hear,” Ros said, adding that Murphy’s visit was also an opportunity for the local community—many of whom still have loved ones in Cambodia—to let the ambassador know what their concerns are regarding the Southeast Asian country, and what the United States can do to support the effort in a meaningful way.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our community to make our voice heard.”
From a public health perspective, Murphy said Cambodia has fared pretty well with the pandemic. The United States and Cambodia have had a longstanding relationship in this area—with organizations and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Navy in Cambodia and helping the country address other infectious diseases in the past.
“This helped Cambodia navigate the pandemic,” Murphy said. With public awareness campaigns on safety measures such as hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing, the country had low death and hospitalization rates. In addition, Cambodia has a very high vaccination rate, with people lining up to get the shot once it—and subsequent boosters and age group openings—became available. The United States also donated 3 million doses of the vaccine to Cambodia, with plans to donate more this year, Murphy said.
“We’re proud to be part of that story”
While the country’s public health fared well during the pandemic, Murphy said Cambodia’s economy took a hit as it relies heavily on tourism. And with almost no tourism for about two years, a lot of people lost work and wages. In addition, he said, migrant workers who had been working abroad returned home—adding another mouth to feed in their families’ households, many of whom were already getting by with less incomes.
This being said, some of that economic impact has been mitigated by the fact that Cambodia has continued to grow its export sector, particularly in textiles—expanding by 30% last year, with a projected expansion of 40% this year—with the United States being its largest market, Murphy said.
“That means a lot of jobs back in Cambodia,” he said.
International relations and addressing crime
Other topics Murphy touched on included the fact that Cambodia is this year’s chair for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The role rotates each year among the 10 member countries and entails hosting meetings with representatives of all levels from the region’s countries, along with other nation partners, throughout the year. This also includes a summit with heads of state and nation leaders, with this year’s set for the fall.
In addition, Murphy discussed how the embassy is working to help return heritage items and looted antiquities to Cambodia whenever they are discovered around the world.
“We are doing our part to restore them,” he said.
He also told Northwest Asian Weekly how it’s part of his job to address international crime, which includes trafficking (of people, narcotics, and flora), as well as financial crimes that cross borders—and that Cambodia is no exception to these issues.
Following his remarks, attendees at the reception had the opportunity to ask the ambassador questions. One of them touched on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Murphy discussed the importance of women’s health around the world, noting that women in Cambodia bear a lot of burdens and that he is proud of them—their success in the classrooms and business—though acknowledging that they still hit ceilings and do not hold many leadership positions.
“Their health is important,” Murphy said.
Two other topics audience members asked about were Cambodia’s election process, the arrest and conviction of Cambodian American lawyer Theary Seng, and dozens of members of a now-defunct political opposition party for alleged treason. In response, Murphy discussed the importance of people being able to speak freely, which is a key part of democracy—though he added that the best form of government for Cambodia is for Cambodians to decide.
Murphy noted how people were asking him tough questions, which he liked, and that he rarely gets these types of questions in Cambodia because people don’t feel as free to speak their minds.