A senior Ministry of National Defence official said the Tuesday meeting between the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H Felter and General Neang Phat had helped strengthen relations between the two countries’ militaries.
However, a senior Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) official hit back at the US’ requests for the release of former opposition leader Kem Sohka and greater democracy in the Kingdom as a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence.
Ministry spokesman General Chhum Socheat said the meeting between Felter and Phat – the Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Defence – was intended to promote cooperation between the countries’ militaries, dismissing allegations that relations had declined.
“It will help strengthen cooperation between the two countries and help strengthen military relations between the US and Cambodia. There is no problem for our permanent relations, meaning that our relations remain the same."
“We will strengthen our relations further in order to maintain national security and security in the region. We hope that this visit will improve our relations,” Socheat said.
Felter’s visit comes in the context of Cambodia’s strengthening relations with China and increasingly strained relations with the US. In 2017, the Cambodian government suspended the annual Angkor Sentinel Exercise with the US military.
According to a Tuesday press release from the US Embassy in Cambodia, Felter was due to spend Tuesday and Wednesday in the Kingdom for a series of meetings to discuss a “shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region” and how it can help Cambodia “maintain its sovereignty free from coercion, to ensure the country’s peace, prosperity and independence”.
The press release also attracted the ire of government officials as it called for Cambodia to drop charges against Sokha and allow civil society and the media to operate freely in the Kingdom.
“He [Felter] will then discuss a path forward for enhancing military-to-military cooperation, when the Cambodian government makes progress on strengthening institutions and implementing reforms, including by dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and allowing civil society and media to operate freely,” the statement claimed.
Socheat said that Sokha and civil society are not in the ministry’s remit and so they did not feature in Tuesday’s meeting between Felter and Phat.
On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Tea Banh responded to the press release by saying that Cambodian sovereignty could not be exchanged for a strengthening of military relations.
He said that demanding opposition leader Sokha’s release in return for military cooperation was not “the business of the US”.
“This condition is impossible because it involves our sovereignty, and therefore it is impossible for this or that person to place conditions or demand that we do this or that . . . We cannot exchange our sovereignty, rights and laws [in return for strengthening military ties],” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan waded into the debate on Wednesday, saying that Cambodia follows the principles of democracy and the rule of law to ensure peace, stability and security in Cambodia, with any external attempts to interfere in that unacceptable.
“With regard to Kem Sokha, it is a legal case that must be enforced on the perpetrators of a crime. So wanting to have good relations with us by placing conditions that Cambodia must release perpetrators is trying to interfere with our internal affairs and is a violation of the principle of democracy and the rule of law."
“They are trying to create a culture of impunity in Cambodia, which they cannot do,” he said.
He said if the US wanted to have good relations with Cambodia, then it must be based on mutual respect and equality, and not interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
US Embassy spokesperson Arend Zwartjes declined to comment on the issue because of the partial US government shutdown.