Lieutenant General Hun Manet, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the commander of the army’s infantry, is to visit the US from April 8 to 12 to attend the Pacific Area Special Operations Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.
US embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg confirmed on Monday that Hun Manet was to participate in a “brief, technical-level, multilateral conference focused on counter-terrorism”.
He was invited in his capacity as Commander of the National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces (NCTSF) as one of approximately 36 commanders of counter-terrorism units from Indo-Pacific nations.
Zeeberg said the US has worked with the Cambodian military for many years on a wide variety of transnational issues, including counter-terrorism, maritime safety, training troops for peacekeeping operations, combating threats to international maritime security and responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
“The US believes a productive military-to-military relationship can help Cambodia maintain its sovereignty free from coercion, to ensure the country’s peace, prosperity and independence for future generations,” she said.
The invitation letter was from Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Mason, chief of the US Army’s Office of Defence Cooperation, and was published by the Ministry of Information on Monday.
It said the conference’s focus is to “re-energise relationships, make new critical connections and examine the efficiency of individual and collective efforts with the theme Resilience in Sovereignty”.
Ministry of National Defence spokesperson Chhum Socheat confirmed on Monday that Manet had left Cambodia on Sunday night. He said this was his first visit to the US this year, but the second since last year’s national elections.
“We welcome all friends. We are a neutral country. We don’t have any inclination to anyone. If it is convenient, we can participate [in such conferences],” he said.
Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales said on Monday that the invitation to Manet indicated that despite the marked downturn in Cambodia-US military relations that saw the cancellation of planned exercises in 2017, the US was still committed to developing military relations with Cambodia.
He said this was an important opportunity for Manet to build personal ties with senior US officials as well as relationships with military representatives from across the Indo-Pacific region.
“It is in Cambodia’s interests to engage with the US military where possible in order to avoid near total military dependence on China."
“While not much can be expected in the present circumstances, it would be a lost opportunity for Cambodia if it did not engage in military cooperation with the US where possible, such as in peacekeeping assistance, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and combating transnational crime, such as cyber warfare,” Thayer said.
However, Zeeberg said the US government was looking forward to enhancing military-to-military cooperation with the Kingdom but only “when the Cambodian government makes substantial progress on strengthening institutions and implementing reforms”.
This, she said, included “dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and allowing civil society and media to operate freely”.
Sokha, who co-founded the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September 2017 and charged with conspiring with a foreign power to oust the government.
His arrest came after a video was spread on social media in which he said he had received US help in his political career. It also led to the dissolution of the CNRP in November that year.
Thayer said the ball was in Cambodia’s court to strengthen military-to-military ties with the US.
But he said the US was heavily constrained by legislation restricting military-to-military cooperation with governments that were perceived to have undermined democracy and violated human rights.
He said the US’ Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 had expressed serious concerns over the rule of law and civil liberties in the Kingdom and this prohibited any funding that benefited the Cambodian government.