Since he was a child in Phnom Penh, Phann Vithyea knew he wanted to serve in the armed forces.
“I loved the military, I loved the idea of serving my country, and I was always playing with little soldier action-figures,” Vithyea said. “I loved the idea of having a gun and going on a wild adventure into the forest and God knows what I’ll find.”
After finishing high school, Vithyea joined the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), where he was a junior officer in the reserve officer program. But it wasn’t long before the West Point Military Academy, one of the oldest such institutions in the world, caught his attention. He applied as soon as he had the chance.
Each year, the US invites young Cambodians to compete to attend one of its military’s armed service academies: the US Military Academy in West Point, New York; the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
All accept unmarried Cambodian citizens aged between 17 and 22.
But the entrance exams are rigorous. Just a handful of applicants have passed in the decade since the program began. (Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, attended West Point in 1997, before the programs were open to other Cambodians.)
Today, just three Cambodians out of the dozens who try out each year are being trained and educated in the military academies. Cadets who complete the program go on to serve in RCAF for five years.
Vithyea’s first shot at going to the States didn’t turn out so well.
“I applied to West Point and I didn’t make it,” he said. “I got bummed out because that was my dream.”
At first, Vithyea felt discouraged. But after a sympathetic mentor offered him support, he was able to build up enough confidence to prepare for the entrance exams and apply again.
Meanwhile, his time in RCAF brought him into contact with members of the US Naval Academy, which has held bilateral trainings with Cambodia’s army for years.
“I realised that these were some pretty kick-ass guys, and I shifted my attention to the navy,” he said.
The next year he applied to West Point and the Naval Academy and was accepted to both. He chose the navy. Today he is in his fourth year at the US Naval Academy, which, he jokingly says, is better than West Point.
“We have a little rivalry,” he says, laughing.
Applicants must perform well in a fitness exam; they must pass English-language tests; they have to get good scores on the SATs, a standardised college admissions exam that even native English speakers struggle with; and they must demonstrate leadership potential in a personal interview.
It doesn’t end there. Should they pass, they are expected to maintain high grade point averages. When this demanding academic curriculum is combined with the culture shock of learning to live, socialise and even eat like an American, it’s a program only the most dedicated and talented students can pass.
“Going straight into the military is hard enough for an American, but for me, with the language barrier, everything was new,” explains Mongkul Oung, a 20-year-old third-year student in the Naval Academy who is also from Phnom Penh. “I had to adapt from Cambodian culture to American culture, and from civilian culture to military culture all at the same time.”
But those who do manage the transition leave school more prepared than their peers back home, and with a different way of looking at the world, and their presence has the potential to reshape Cambodia’s military.
“When I arrived in America, I was surprised that people around me were very nationalist, that they loved their country so much,” said Heng Samnang, a 21-year-old from Prey Veng province who is in his second year at the Naval Academy. “That inspired me to love my country, too. Before I came here I didn’t really care so much, but now I’ve been inspired to love my country, love democracy, stuff like that.”
Heng holds similar views about the role of the military in politics, views he has picked up since arriving in the US.
“The US military doesn’t want us to get involved in politics publicly,” he said. “I mostly learned that here.”
RCAF, however, has been accused of doing just that, particularly after its recent alleged intimidation manoeuvres around opposition headquarters and heated rhetoric.
The concerns have mounted to the point that a US State Department official recently warned that further such actions could mean an end to US military aid to Cambodia. (A US Embassy representative yesterday could not say whether that would also apply to the military academy programs.)
While the US places a premium on the neutrality of the military, and its role as a mechanism for external defence – an idea that Vithyea and other cadets said they eagerly seized upon – Cambodia’s armed forces have long taken a pro-ruling party line.
And with political tensions ratcheting up ahead of the local and general elections in 2017 and 2018, respectively, the army is ramping up that rhetoric with dark warnings about “colour revolutions” and protecting the “legitimate government”, personified by Hun Sen.
In the latest of such statements, four-star General Kun Kim, RCAF’s deputy commander-in-chief and a stalwart loyalist of Hun Sen, made headlines when he said his troops would “enforce the law” if they received an order to arrest leaders of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
A day later, military exercises – which many viewed as straightforward intimidation – brought the armed forces to the very doorstep of CNRP headquarters. As helicopters swooped low over the building, troops from the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit in combat gear drove up and down National Road 2 in front of the building, and other troops manned boats anchored on the river behind the building.
With all of that going on, it’s hardly surprising that some observers are wondering whether the military would actually intervene should the ruling Cambodian People’s Party lose power in 2018, and what kind of future the graduates of the US’s elite academies will face when they return home.
But for the cadets studying in the US – which strictly subordinates the military’s role below that of politics – RCAF’s recent actions would be anathema.
“Most people don’t know what a colour revolution is, and as military people we don’t care what a colour revolution is,” says Oung. “We just want peace and stability.”
For Oung, countries like Egypt made a grave mistake by giving power to the military during times of political and civil unrest. Even in the US, says Oung, the military is brought up too often during debates in the controversial presidential election campaign currently underway.
He argues that the military’s first job is to maintain peace and support the country’s long-term prospects for stability.
Even if the cadets’ education differs from that of their counterparts in the Cambodian military, someone like Vithyea – who has experience with both RCAF and the US Navy – doesn’t see major differences between the goals and views within the two militaries.
“We swear an oath of office that is almost exactly the same, except that we are a kingdom, so it’s a little different,” Vithyea says.
The cadets concede that their post-graduation transition to RCAF will be difficult. Nevertheless, they say their American training will provide them with innovative ways to work with RCAF’s technological and monetary shortcomings.
“It will obviously be hard to go back, but it’s what we signed up for,” Oung adds. “We could choose an easy life and go to a regular college, but if we all did that, who would help Cambodia? So even if there are problems with salary, or technology, or equipment, we have to help Cambodia.”
Meanwhile, Heng sees a future for himself facilitating the relationship between Cambodia and the United States. “The US wants me to work in Cambodia because they want to contact me and keep the ties between Cambodia and the US,” says Heng.
“So when I graduate from here and work in Cambodia and the Americans need to contact Cambodian military personnel, they’ll be happy to contact me, because I have the same perspectives as they do.”
However, those perspectives don’t extend to much of the military at large. Certain military units have been implicated in grave human rights abuses, and the army has been called in to forcibly evict villagers from their land – in at least one case burning their homes.
Meanwhile, the cadets studying in the US seemed largely unaware of the military’s alleged history of rights abuses and political ties, or of any differences between it and militaries in liberal Western democracies.
According to political analyst Ou Virak, while programs like the US’ are a good idea, the current culture in the military will ultimately render them useless.
“I understand the purpose of these programs to instill democratic ideals in people and that’s good, but it will have a minimal effect on the military, because when they get back their hands will be tied,” he said.
But the cadets, nonetheless, said they were eager to return home and serve their country.
“The military is something I want to do for the rest of my life,” said Vithyea. “I’m excited for it, and when I go back to Cambodia, I’ll fulfil whatever mission the Ministry [of Defence] wants me to. Cambodia needs human resources, and I hope to contribute to those human resources to bring Cambodia to greatness again.”