The Ministry of National Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation hit back at the US for unilaterally imposing sanctions on two senior Cambodian military officials. The ministries said the sanctions were “senseless, provocative and politically motivated”.

The reaction came after the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned the two commanders – defence ministry director-general for logistics and technical services Chao Phirun and Tea Vinh, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) who also serves as the Navy commander. It cited corruption as the motive for the sanctions.

The treasury department said Phirun and Vinh “are designated pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world”.

It alleged that in 2020-2021, Phirun “conspired to profit from activities regarding the construction and upgrading of the Ream Naval Base facilities.

“Additionally, [Phirun, Vinh] and other Cambodian government officials likely conspired to inflate the cost of facilities at Ream Naval Base and personally benefited from the proceeds. [The two officials] planned to share funds skimmed from the Ream Naval Base project.”

Defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said in a press statement on November 12 that the US treasury department has on several occasions shown its “arrogance” by unilaterally sanctioning senior officers of the RCAF over unfounded accusations.

“The Ministry of National Defence regards this action as senseless and provocative. The US has once again tried to destroy the harmony of the Cambodian people. There is no difference between their current actions and their brutal behaviours undertaken in the past which resulted in destruction and tragedy for Cambodia and other countries around the world,” Socheat said.

He said the US always uses the issue of Ream Naval Base as leverage to apply pressure even when Cambodia strives to show goodwill, makes concessions and deals honestly with the US in the spirit of friendship.

The ministry has repeatedly stated that Cambodia’s sovereignty is fully intact and the modernisation of the naval base is not a threat to the security of any countries as alleged.

The defence ministry and RCAF have always shown goodwill towards other countries and respected their sovereignty and regarded this respect as a mutual interest and a way of evading friction, he said.

“In contrast, the US constantly displays disregard for Cambodia’s sovereignty to further its own interests and enhance its position in its current geo-political rivalries,” he said.

“This provocative and dishonourable act will absolutely not succeed in making Cambodia return to the tragic eras of the past caused by external interference. We will stand firmly to protect our national interests at all costs and build good relations with our friends who choose to respect mutual interests,” he said.

Likewise, the foreign ministry “strongly deplores the long-arm jurisdiction of the US” over Cambodian officials based on “groundless allegations driven by geopolitical motives”.

“The smear campaign and unilateral sanctioning by the US against public figures of a sovereign state not only violates international laws and basic norms governing international relations but displays utter contempt for the independence of our country as well as seriously interfering in our domestic affairs,” ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said in a statement.

Kuong said the US’ “designation runs counter to the resolution of the Human Rights Council [46/5] adopted in March 2021, which strongly condemns the continued application of unilateral coercive measures by certain powers as tools of pressure against least developed and developing countries, with a view to preventing them from exercising their rights to decide their own political and socio-economic systems”.

“Cambodia has always expressed its desire for stronger and closer relations with the US, despite our painful history with them,” he said.

He noted that the US Department of State last week signalled its interest in “working together with Cambodia as the next ASEAN Chair”.

“However, these illegally imposed prohibitions are another step in the wrong direction and one which totally deviates from the spirit of amity and renewed endeavours to elevate the productive partnership between the two countries in the area of trade and investment, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, POW/MIA repatriation [finding and repatriating the remains of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War], peace corps volunteers, people-to-people connections and other key regional issues of shared interests,” Kuong said.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said the sanctions levelled against the Cambodian military officials are a new political scenario as the two commanders are linked to the Ream Naval Base where the US has repeatedly raised suspicions that it will be used by the Chinese military.

“It is [motivated by] geopolitical conflict because Cambodia has good ties with China and the US’ concern is politically motivated. If the two officials committed corruption as the US has alleged, the US should file a complaint to the Cambodian government to investigate,” Phea said.