Cambodia is reviewing whether the military has any US-made weapons or equipment in order to follow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s directive to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to either shelve or destroy them in response to the US’ imposition of an arms embargo.
The US imposed the embargo on December 9, citing “deepening Chinese military influence in Cambodia [that] undermines and threatens regional security” as well as alleged “corruption and human rights abuses”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on December 10 wryly thanked the US for its decision to halt the sale of weapons and military equipment to Cambodia and ordered all RCAF units to put all US-made arms and military hardware into storage in warehouses or just destroy them outright.
“I take this opportunity to thank the US for its decision to ban the sale of weapons and military equipment to Cambodia. This demonstrates the wisdom of the decision I made in 1994 when I elected not to change our weapons systems over to US-models.
“I’ve also issued an order to all units of the armed forces to immediately review the weapons and military equipment that Cambodia currently possesses and to put all US-made hardware, if any, into storage or simply smash it to pieces,” he said in a Facebook post that also included a photo of himself shaking hands with former US President Donald Trump.
Hun Sen then quipped that armies equipped with US-made weapons tend to lose wars, pointing to Lon Nol’s defeat in 1975, which came about despite the US supporting that regime with an abundance of weapons shipments.
He noted that those weapons imports ran up a huge debt to the US that remains on the Kingdom’s books to this day despite multiple other regimes having governed Cambodia since then.
“Even recently, the losers of the war in Afghanistan used US weapons. I will trust in our troops’ courage, their spirit and determination to fight on the battlefield to protect our territorial sovereignty rather than on weapons alone,” Hun Sen said.
The prime minister underlined that this incident was also a lesson for the next generation of Cambodian leaders about the pitfalls of using US-made weapons. He said that if they want Cambodia’s military to remain independent, the country must maintain independence in its defence industry.
Minister of National Defence Tea Banh told The Post on December 12 that there are a moderate amount of US-made weapons in the Kingdom, but they were all imported by the Lon Nol regime in the early 1970’s or dropped onto Cambodian territory by former US President Richard Nixon in an illegal bombing campaign around that same time, which used more explosives on Cambodia than the Allied powers did during all of World War II and played a factor in his eventual impeachment and resignation.
“Yes, there are still US-made weapons here because they were brought into Cambodia during Lon Nol’s time and it was a lot of weapons. If we’re just talking about the bombs they dropped from air, there were millions of tonnes of them.
“Back when Lon Nol finally lost the war, there were still a huge amount of US-made weapons in different warehouses and other places stored across the country. But most of them would be too old to be used by now,” he said.
Tea Banh said that under the current government, Cambodia has never purchased arms from the US. However, some equipment such as military vehicles had been donated by the US, though there was not much of it in current use.
Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) director Heng Ratana said CMAC has been kept busy over the years in part because it frequently had to deal with unexploded ordnance dropped on Cambodia by the US when the country became a target during the Vietnam War due to North Vietnamese supply chains that crossed over the border into the Kingdom.
“We continue to work towards clearing all of the areas littered with US bombs, particularly the eight provinces in the eastern part of Cambodia along the border with Vietnam,” Ratana said.
He explained that all of the cluster bombs found in Cambodia are from the US, while the landmines were typically produced in Belgium, China or Vietnam.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Cambodia would probably be better off if the prime minister would respond to attempts at coercive diplomacy by the US with silent and stoic indifference rather than anger.
“Such vehement and mocking responses aren’t dignified in character and won’t improve the image of our nation or its leaders in the wider world.
“The relationship between Cambodia and America will not get any better with responses like that and it could cause further negative fallout to ensue, including sanctions against commercial entities or suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade status,” he said.
Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, begged to differ. He said Hun Sen’s response to what seems like an unjust and pointless arms embargo imposed on Cambodia by the US could not be expected to be positive.
“[Hun Sen] is partly just expressing the fact that Cambodia’s military weapons don’t come from the US or depend on them. So the embargo has no impact at all on the country’s armaments. The arms supply sources for the Kingdom are, as we know, Russia, some countries in Eastern Europe and China,” he said.
He said the prime minister’s reaction does risk souring relations between the two countries and that it would be better to work these problems out discreetly through direct dialogue in order to build a good relationship with mutual respect for each other’s interests.