Australia has become the latest Western country to see military cooperation programs with Cambodia suspended, with the scrapping of a counter-terrorism exercise, a defence official confirmed yesterday.
The decision to suspend the Dawn Kouprey exercises was first reported by the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
It follows a decision by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, revealed in January, to postpone drills with the United States military for two years, including the annual Angkor Sentinel exercises.
Reached yesterday, Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat confirmed the Australian counter-terrorism drill was suspended “temporarily” because of elections.
Socheat deployed the same rationale delivered when the US programs were called off. “We have temporarily suspended [the exercise] with Australia because we are busy and have a lot of work, including rallying forces to maintain security for the election,” Socheat said.
“And earlier this year, we were also busy with an anti-drug campaign.”
The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Australian Defence Department failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
According to the ABC, Cambodia will continue to accept tertiary education scholarships, officer training and English-language courses from the Australian military and will send soldiers to a separate counter-terrorism exercise in Australia in 2018.
Australia’s counter-terrorism training program works with the National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces, a unit led by the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet.
The US has also conducted counter-terrorism training with Cambodia, and on February 17, US Ambassador William Heidt met with Manet to discuss military cooperation in the wake of the suspension, according to the US Embassy’s Facebook account.
Though the social media post described the talks as “fruitful”, embassy spokesman David Josar yesterday said the US had “not received a detailed explanation” for the cancellation.
The moves to suspend elements of military cooperation with the US and Australia, two long-time defence partners of the Kingdom, reflects an ongoing shift towards China, according to regional expert Paul Chambers.
“China, with its enormous trade, investment and assistance to Cambodia, has effectively become Hun Sen’s patron,” said Chambers, a professor of international relations at Chiang Mai University.
“To show its vassal loyalty, the Cambodian government has continued to increase military exercises [with] China while distancing itself from the West.”
In December last year, some 100 Chinese troops joined almost 300 Cambodian counterparts for the 16-day Golden Dragon exercise in Kampong Speu province.
Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said he believed the move, which he called a “setback” for Australia, reflected poorly on RCAF’s professionalism.
The motives, he said, were more likely “political paranoia” as elections approach rather than geopolitical considerations.