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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - US cuts funding to CMAC amid government’s war of words with superpower

CMAC officials remove US chemical bombs last month in Svay Rieng’s Koki commune.
CMAC officials remove US chemical bombs last month in Svay Rieng’s Koki commune. Photo supplied

US cuts funding to CMAC amid government’s war of words with superpower

The United States has cut funding next year for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre following months of criticism from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of America’s war legacy in the Kingdom.

Heng Ratana, general director for CMAC, confirmed yesterday that the US would discontinue its $2 million annual grant to the demining body starting next year. The funding has been funnelled through the nonprofit Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and supported projects in the eastern part of the country, which was heavily bombed by the superpower during the Vietnam War.

“I received a letter from our partner NPA to me [yesterday]. The letter was about the conclusion and stop to funding of the project for clearance in the eastern part of Cambodia,” Ratana said in an interview.

The funding cut follows months of acrimony between the two countries, with Prime Minister Hun Sen repeatedly pointing the finger at the US for its purported role in an alleged conspiracy to topple his government.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is facing charges of “treason” while awaiting trial in a Tbong Khmum prison ostensibly over a 2013 video in which he describes getting political training from the US.

America’s war legacy has also been repeatedly invoked by Hun Sen throughout the last year, most recently during a CMAC operation to unearth 15 tear gas bombs in Svay Rieng province’s Koki commune.

As anti-American rhetoric intensified, the Vietnam-era bombs became something of a political talking point, with the premier and other officials accusing the US of shirking its responsibilities to assist the Kingdom in its recovery efforts while claiming that villagers were falling ill from the gas.

The US fired back, pointing to its history of funding clearance efforts and saying it had trained mine action officials specifically on how to remove such ordnance, which it said the government had been aware of for years.

CMAC’s Ratana said he met with State Department officials in July and had subsequently held other consultation meetings on the body’s funding for 2018. At no point, he said, was there any indication of cuts.

“There was no indication of stopping funding during the discussions. This is very disappointing,” he said. “They have a moral obligation and goodwill obligation because they dropped a lot of bombs on the Cambodian people.”

He said the immediate aim was to try to find other development partners to make up the deficit, but that the short notice given by the US would make that endeavour tricky.

CMAC’s funding amounts to a third of the $6 million the US contributes annually to the demining sector in the country, with other recipients including The Halo Trust and Mines Advisory Group. The Halo Trust would not comment on its own funding for 2018 or the CMAC development.

The US Embassy yesterday also said it did not have any comments on the development. NPA Country Director Aksel Steen Nilsen said the nonprofit organisation was notified of the funding cut last week without any reasons provided.

“It is the end of the grant cycle and we will try to fill the gap but it is very difficult with short notice,” he said. “I am sure the US will explain their reasons.”

He added that the US had not indicated any problems with CMAC’s implementation of the project and declined to speculate about whether politics could be involved.

Political analyst Meas Nee said the move was clearly pushback for the government’s continued propagation of “anti-US sentiments and propaganda”, adding that the average Cambodian would recognise the reasons for the superpower’s decision.

“The average Cambodian will not know how much funding was given but can see that it is political retaliation against the Cambodian government, which has spread these anti-US sentiments,” he said.

Ly Thuch, secretary-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, maintained it was normal for demining activities to see financial fluctuations, adding it had “not forced any country to fund” it.

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