United States officials finished a three-day trip to Cambodia yesterday focused on bilateral military cooperation and supporting the development of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces into a “professional force”.
Neang Phat, secretary of state for National Defence, led the Cambodian delegation in the meetings and said yesterday the visit demonstrated “that the relationship between Cambodia and America is very good”.
The purpose of the visit was to emphasise “commitment to assisting the RCAF develop a professional force, while encouraging Cambodia to continue on a path of improved transparency, governance,
commitment to the rule of law, sustained democratic development and respect for human rights,” a statement from the US Embassy said.
Derek Mitchell, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, said at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh yesterday the Cambodian military was carrying out “notable institutional reforms” that had the potential to create a “transparent RCAF” that respects human rights and acts as a force for stability in the region.
He declined however to offer details on those reforms.
Mitchell said Cambodian counterparts showed great interest in engaging with the US, “and they know we come with certain standards ... we were very clear in our dialogue in laying those out and reaffirming that”.
Mitchell emphasised the value of US training and support over its direct military aid, which he said stands at US$1 million annually.
Mitchell also met with NGOs, which he said were “extremely important in this society”.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, and other human rights workers met with Mitchell yesterday.
“I do have a sense that the US engagement militarily is a given, so the conversation is ‘how’, not whether they should [engage] or not,” he said.
Ou Virak said the Cambodian armed forces are “most responsible for most of the rights violations, particularly the land grabbing”, in Cambodia.
“There is a lot of talk of professionalising the military,” he said, but “not enough” action. He said it is not yet clear what “professionalising” the military means.
He said the US has to be “extremely careful in making sure that the engagement isn’t enhancing the tools that oppress the people.”
The best way to do that, he said, was through frank talk.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID