US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H Felter met with General Neang Phat at the Ministry of National Defence in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to discuss military cooperation with Cambodia.
Felter is in the Kingdom on a two-day official visit over Tuesday and Wednesday.
A press release from the US Embassy in Cambodia said: “Felter will meet with Ministry of National Defence Secretary of State General Neang Phat to discuss a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and how 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."
“He will then discuss a path forward for enhancing military-to-military cooperation, when the Cambodian government makes progress on strengthening institutions and implementing reforms, including by dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and allowing civil society and media to operate freely.”
US embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes declined to comment due to the partial shutdown of the US government.
Ministry of National Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Tea Banh said on Tuesday that he had not received the report of the discussion yet, but stressed that Cambodian sovereignty could not be exchanged for a strengthening of military relations.
He said that demanding opposition leader Sokha’s release in return for military cooperation was not “the business of the US”.
“This condition is impossible because it involves our sovereignty, and therefore it is impossible for this or that person to place conditions or demand that we do this or that . . . We cannot exchange our sovereignty, rights and laws [in return for strengthening military ties],” he said.
Banh said the government and people can survive without US military assistance.
“The nature of the powerful country is also to do this work [pressure and place conditions] and this is not new. It had been like this for so long and it has never given opportunities for poor countries to do anything easily."
“In short, [the US] has tried to obstruct our development in all sectors through placing this and that pressure or this or that measure – this is the way it has practised [bilateral relations] so far,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia would not accept cooperation that came with conditions attached.
He said the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) was responsible for combating and carrying out the duties set out by the government and is not involved in politics.
“If foreigners use military ties to dictate terms to the RCAF in relation to the Kem Sokha case, we cannot accept that."
“This is tantamount to interference in the duties of the RCAF, which is not a political institution. The Sokha case is to be solved by the courts, not the government or the RCAF. So we cannot accept any discussion or talks to release him,” he said.
Siphan said bringing Sokha into military discussions meant inciting the RCAF to interfere in court matters when the RCAF only enforces the prime minister’s directives.
Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute, said the US took the sovereignty of a smaller country in exchange for diplomatic or technical relations.
He questioned whether the value of the peace and sovereignty of a nation could be exchanged in return for any relationship with the US.
“Why did the US bring Sokha into the discussion about Cambodia? Is Sokha a US citizen or a puppet of the US who is implementing that country’s policies in Cambodia? The US should clarify who Sokha is,” he said.
He said Sokha is a Cambodian citizen and politician, and he is facing legal issues under Cambodian law. Bringing Sokha into a discussion on military cooperation, he said, implies that a superpower is using its might to interfere in the internal affairs of a smaller nation.