After a series of government crackdowns on protests in Cambodia – at least one of which was known to involve an elite RCAF unit – a leading rights group yesterday lambasted the US for providing training to the country’s “abusive armed forces”.
In a statement released yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit out at US military forces for providing “training that would assist Cambodia’s military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists”.
The statement further suggests that the joint exercises may be in violation of US law, an assertion strongly denied by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh yesterday.
The training took place last month as part of Angkor Sentinel, an annual joint exercise between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the US military.
According to HRW, videos and photographs posted on Facebook show evidence of training exercises that “may violate US congressional funding requirements for military training and other forms of security assistance … except in limited areas of ‘global health, food security, humanitarian demining programs, human rights training for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, or to enhance maritime security capabilities.’”
“You have cases where there are people charging across fields with guns … storming buildings, kicking down doors. It is forbidden; it is against the law,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told the Post yesterday.
“I don’t think they were actually even hiding it,” he said.
One of the photographs, under the caption “a proper vehicle search technique in an urban environment”, shows a Cambodian soldier stopping a vehicle by standing in front of it with his assault rifle aimed at the windshield.
“[The] US Congress significantly restricted US military assistance . . . Maybe somebody didn’t get the memo, but this is outside the law,” Robertson said.
“Our view is that this training is inappropriate and there should be an investigation and explanation.”
However, US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said: “Angkor Sentinel’s 2014 activities were conducted in full compliance with all applicable US laws and regulations.
“No Congressionally-restricted funds were used in support of the exercise,” he said by email yesterday.
Asked about the specific training Cambodian soldiers were given, McIntosh said exercises included “activities in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, such as battalion staff training, engineering exchanges, medical training, and preparation for United Nations peacekeeping missions.
“The photos posted by the US military on Facebook show Cambodians being trained to respond properly to the threat of improvised explosive devices, a persistent danger in Cambodia’s peacekeeping operations throughout the world,” McIntosh said.
General Eth Sarath, head of military training for the RCAF, said HRW’s accusations were unfounded.
“The training is the military cooperation between the US and Cambodia that we do every year. [HRW] are speaking without facts and … reason. We don’t listen to them; it is not the truth,” he said.
Since the election last July, Cambodia has seen a number of violent crackdowns on opposition and labour demonstrations at the hands of government security forces, which have resulted in dozens of injuries and at least six deaths. An additional protester who sustained head injuries during a garment wage protest on January 3 died this week.
While the military units that took part in Angkor Sentinel 2014 have not been made public, HRW said that footage of a Cambodian officer in a red beret at the closing ceremony of the event could implicate the Army Paratrooper Special Forces Brigade 911.
Brigade 911 was responsible for violently clearing protesters outside the South Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory during a wage strike on January 2.
Chap Pheakdey, commander of the 911 commando unit, hung up when called to confirm his unit’s participation.
McIntosh said yesterday that no members of Brigade 911 were involved in the training. He also dismissed claims that members of the gendarmerie were present.
“All Cambodian individuals and military units that participated in Angkor Sentinel 2014 were thoroughly vetted in compliance with the Leahy Amendment, which requires the Department of State to ensure there is no credible information suggesting participating individuals or military units have committed gross violations of human rights,” he said.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the accusations raised wider questions about foreign military assistance.
“The important question to ask is, ‘Does it contribute to human rights violations or does it help fight them?’”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA