Military involvement in any political crackdown or human rights abuses could spell the end of US cooperation with Cambodia’s armed forces was the message conveyed yesterday by a State Department official.
Ending a two-day visit to the country, Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, said recent comments by Cambodia’s commander-in-chief for the armed forces, General Pol Saroeun, calling for the elimination of “people who have the wrong kind of mentality” were of high concern.
“[I]f the military were to get involved in a political crackdown or human rights abuses of any kind, it would be difficult for the US to continue all the forms of cooperation that we think are in our mutual interest,” he said, speaking to reporters at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.
The US and Cambodia have conducted a number of joint training exercises in recent years, most prominently Angkor Sentinel, which has been criticised by rights groups “for providing what appeared to be offensive training to Cambodia units”. The US Navy also cooperates with their Cambodian counterparts for the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercises.
Earlier this month, local media reported that Saroeun had asked military officers to work with local authorities to prevent “any tendencies to cause instability to the nation or any movements and activities attempting to destroy peace”.
“We must get rid of it immediately, because peace is a prime factor bringing the motherland to development in all fields,” he reportedly said.
The comments are just the latest in a long string of comments by military brass seemingly pledging explicit loyalty to the ruling party.
In January, four-star General Neang Phat urged hundreds of soldiers at a military institute in Kampong Speu province to “eliminate” any attempts by the opposition to stage a colour revolution or foment “instability in society.” “We need to realise that they destroy our nation and are the ones who create the colour revolution – we must go against them,” he said.
More recently, Defense Minister Tea Banh was reported as saying the military could not sit silent in light of recent “negative activities” and that this “evil” would try to upend the country.
Malinowski stressed yesterday that it was critical for the armed forces and police department, including the judiciary, to maintain their political neutrality ahead of upcoming elections.
Following meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the opposition and civil society groups, Malinowksi said the US would like to see all charges against the CNRP and rights activists dropped, as well as an independent investigation into the recent murder of political analyst Kem Ley.
Reacting to Malinowski’s statement, Saroeun declined to comment, only saying “there are laws; if they respect the law, this will end”.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said he could not answer for the views of senior officials in the defence establishment and was unsure if military leaders had even made the comments in question.
“I have never heard them talk to soldiers about this issue; they only talk about sovereignty and independence,” he said.
Meanwhile, the role of the security forces in the coming elections is also under scrutiny.
A sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen this week tasks a joint committee, comprising Interior Minister Sar Kheng and several top military officials, with monitoring the election process, especially the “use of force”.
The sub-decree does not specifically state whether soldiers will be stationed at voting booths, though Socheat said troops may be positioned nearby to maintain order.
National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said the body was still drafting a code to regulate the conduct of state security forces, which have in the past been accused of campaigning for the CPP and intimidating voters.
Kevin Nauen, senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, yesterday said the National Police should suffice to maintain order during the election and that any involvement by soldiers could impact the election’s quality.
“Although one should not single out Cambodia as the only state where such a policy occurs, it is certainly incompatible with international standards regarding ideal civil-military relations and security sector governance in democratic systems,” he said.
Nauen and academic Paul Chambers of the Chaing Mai, Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, have both predicted that Hun Sen’s “personalised control” over the military will only grow stronger as the 2018 elections near.
Reached yesterday, Chambers welcomed the US assistant secretary of state’s stance, noting the CPP’s central committee is stacked with military officials.
“The power network between the CPP and Cambodian military so dominates the country that opposition political parties can be smothered with impunity,” he said via email.
“A suspension of US military assistance might make the Cambodian CPP govt slow down its repression of critics. But at the same time, China might seek to fill the void left by the USA’s withdrawal of military aid.”
Jon Grevatt, a reporter for defence analyst IHS Jane’s, noted US military aid to Cambodia had dropped consistently in recent years – from $1 million in 2009 to $500,000 in 2014, which the analyst said was clearly based on concerns about the country’s human rights record.
“The US still has major concerns with Cambodia, while it is only rhetoric [on the Cambodian side], if it turns into actions that impact human rights, the engagement of Cambodia will be reduced,” he said. “I would suggest the US is keen to engage with Cambodia; it’s whether Cambodia is keen to engage with the US, that is the question.”