AS Cambodia gears up to hold large-scale military exercises this weekend, government officials have dismissed claims that the units hosting the event have been implicated in “serious” human rights abuses.
The Angkor Sentinel exercise, part of the 2010 Global Peace Operations Initiative, will involve 1,000 military personnel from 23 countries. It was to start with a military officer training course in Phnom Penh today.
The training course will be followed by a two-week field training exercise scheduled to kick off at the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces ACO Tank Command Headquarters in Kampong Speu province on Saturday.
The exercises, jointly run by the US departments of defence and state, were designed to help train peacekeepers, Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said yesterday.
“The military field training will use only small arms, starting from AK-47 [rifles] and focus on the skill and the strategy of maintaining security and peacekeeping,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen was expected to preside over the opening of the exercises on Saturday, according to a military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The exercises have drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch, which has slammed the involvement of RCAF units that it says have been implicated in rights violations, including evictions, arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings.
“For the Pentagon and state department to permit abusive Cambodian military units to host a high-profile regional peacekeeping exercise is outrageous,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in a statement Thursday.
HRW said the ACO Tank Unit has been involved in illegal land seizures in Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Speu provinces.
The statement says the exercises will likely involve troops from Brigade 70 and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard units, both of which HRW has linked to a March 1997 grenade attack on a political rally that left at least 16 dead and hundreds injured.
“The US undermines its protests against the Cambodian government for rampant rights abuses like forced evictions when it showers international attention and funds on military units involved in grabbing land and other human rights violations,” Robertson said in the statement.
When contacted yesterday, however, government officials dismissed the HRW allegations as politically motivated.
“It is a political campaign of an individual foreigner, and I don’t know when Cambodia will be freed from the bother of their foreign policy,” said Om Yentieng, head of the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee.
He said all military officers involved in illegal activities are punished by their superiors.
Tith Sothea, a spokesman at the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said the military exercise was consistent with the government’s policy of strengthening co-operation with the international community.
“The statements of Human Rights Watch have always shown a bad habit of interfering in the internal affairs of the government,” he said.
US embassy spokesman John Johnson said in a statement yesterday that in accordance with US law, all participants in the exercises were “thoroughly and rigorously vetted” by the embassy and the departments of state and defence.
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