Friday, July 30, 2010

U.S. and Cambodia in Controversial Lockstep

Cambodia's first-ever multinational military exercise is part and parcel of intensifying competition between the United States and China for regional influence.
The recently completed US-Cambodia military drills, known as "Angkor Sentinel 10", involved 1,200 soldiers from 23 countries and were ostensibly part of Washington's Global Peace Operations Initiative, a program run jointly by the US Department of Defense and State Department to help train global peacekeepers against insurgency, terrorism, crime and ethnic conflict. The largest contingents of troops in the exercise were from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the US Army Pacific, even as it was billed as a multilateral peacekeeping operation.

Warming bilateral relations come as the Barack Obama administration puts new policy emphasis on Asia and moves to compete with, if not contain, China's growing influence in Southeast Asia. Cambodia, as well as Laos and Myanmar, are viewed by many observers as already firmly in China's orbit. China's influence in Cambodia has grown considerably in the past decade. While not the largest official donor to the country, its aid projects and investments are strongly publicized and come without demands for improved human rights, better governance or less corruption. The US has provided over US$4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to the Cambodian military since 2006, and this was the first time the two sides jointly put the equipment to use. Recent statements by US officials highlighted the cooperation between Cambodia and US forces.

At the May 3 opening of the now-completed, US Defense Department-funded Peacekeeping Training Center, US charge d'affaires Theodore Allegra said the US remained ''committed to enhancing military relations with Cambodia in the areas of defense reform and professionalization, border and maritime security, counter-terrorism, civil-military operations and de-mining." The $1.8 million training center was "evidence of the US government's commitment to enhancing partner capacity with Cambodia", he said.

At the July 12 opening ceremony of the military operations, US ambassador to Cambodia Carol Rodley said Washington was committed to enhancing its military relationship with Phnom Penh and called Angkor Sentinel a "unique opportunity" to expand the friendship between the two countries. The drills, which also included participants from France, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, India, Italy, Germany, Japan, Mongolia and the United Kingdom, notably coincided with the 60th anniversary of US-Cambodia relations.

The program for the exercises consisted of two main components: a multilateral UN force headquarters computer-simulated command post exercise held in Phnom Penh and a two-week field training exercise at the RCAF's ACO Tank Command headquarters in Kompong Speu province 50 kilometers west of the capital. However, the exercises did not sit well with some military officers in Thailand, the US's erstwhile security partner in the region. Thailand plays host annually to the region's largest US-led joint military exercise, Cobra Gold. Some Thai officers have expressed dismay that the US is showing increased strategic interest in a country that has emerged as one of its biggest security threats in light of recent border disputes and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's perceived meddling in Thai domestic politics. United States Under Secretary of State William Burns discounted this view in a July 16 press conference in Bangkok. "We don't see that as in any way contradicting or in conflict with our commitment to working with the Thai military on regional security or peacekeeping operations," he said.

Guns for hire

Cambodia has come a long way since being the recipient of one of the United Nations' largest peacekeeping operations from 1991-1993. After decades of debilitating civil war, the country has in recent years sent peacekeepers, primarily de-mining experts, to Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and Lebanon. Human-rights activists argue that while Cambodia may no longer need peacekeepers itself, its population is still in need of protection from its own armed forces, including units involved in the recent joint exercises.

In a July 8 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, alleged that many RCAF units selected to participate in the joint exercises had abysmal rights records. HRW said that by allowing the controversial units to participate in the drills, the US had undermined its own commitment to the promotion of human rights in Cambodia. HRW, Cambodian human-rights organizations and other international rights groups, as well as the US State Department, have all detailed ACO Tank Command units involvement in illegal land seizures. These include the November 2009 seizure of farmland from 133 families in Baneay Meanchey province and the use of tanks in 2007 to flatten villagers' fences and crops in a forceful move to confiscate land. HRW noted that certain elite units, such as the prime minister's personal bodyguard, Airborne Brigade 911, Brigade 31 and Brigade 70, were all scheduled to participate in the Phnom Penh portion of the exercise. Both the bodyguard unit and Brigade 70 were involved in the 1997 grenade attack on a political rally by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, according to HRW.

Airborne Brigade 911, meanwhile, has been linked to arbitrary detentions, political violence, torture and summary executions. Brigade 31 has been accused of involvement in illegal logging, intimidation of opposition party activists and land-grabbing, including the use in 2008 of US-provided trucks to forcibly evict villagers from their land in Kampot province. Cambodian military officers and soldiers operate without fear of arrest or punishment, human-rights groups say. ''Hun Sen has promoted military officers implicated in torture, extra-judicial killings and political violence,'' said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.

While some of these acts have been carried out for the benefit of the business interests of military officers, others have been done at the request of private companies with links to the military. Plans announced by Hun Sen in February for corporate sponsorship of military units to cover defense costs have many worried that the contributions will increase companies' control over military units to do their bidding. Cambodian government officials dismissed HRW's claims. The US has likewise defended its involvement in the exercises. In a July 11 statement by embassy spokesman John Johnson, he said all participants in the exercises were "thoroughly and rigorously vetted" by the embassy and the Defense and State departments. This was echoed by Burns during his visit to Phnom Penh. "Any
military relationship that we conduct around the world is consistent with US law. And so, we look very carefully, we vet carefully, the participants from Cambodia, from other countries, in any kind of exercise that we engage in."

HRW called on the US government to suspend military aid to Cambodia until an improved and thorough human-rights vetting process could be implemented to screen out abusive individuals or units from receiving US aid or training. However, indications are that the US has little interest in putting the brakes on rapidly improving bilateral ties with Cambodia.

Symbolic gestures

One major symbolic step was the removal last year of Cambodia and Laos from a list of Marxist-Leninist states. The redesignation opened the way for increased US investment by removing restrictions on US Export-Import Bank financing and loans to both countries. Washington is currently one of Cambodia's largest donors with more than $72 million in assistance this year focused on health, education, economic development and government accountability. The US donated $65 million in 2009. Washington is apparently showing its support in other ways, too. Last month, an American judge sentenced Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith to life in prison for his leading role in an attempted coup in November 2000 by a group calling itself the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF). Although the CFF had previously received some tacit US approval, the verdict sent a message to other Cambodians that support for any anti-government activities from US soil would no longer be tolerated.

Security related ties have also improved, partly out of recognition that several high-profile terror suspects have passed through Cambodia. In January 2008, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller made a visit to Cambodia to open a new FBI office at the embassy. Mueller said at the time, "It's an important country to us because of the potential for persons transiting Cambodia or utilizing Cambodia as a spot for terrorism." Since then Phnom Penh has requested FBI help to solve the assassination of opposition journalist Khim Sambo and his son in July 2008 during a national election campaign. The journalist was known for his scathing criticisms of Hun Sen's administration, including allegations of corruption. The government has also requested FBI assistance in a joint investigation into a failed bomb plot against several government buildings by would-be Cambodian rebels in January 2009.

Prior to opening its new office, the FBI was involved in an investigation into the 1997 grenade attack on a rally by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in which 16 people were killed and an American citizen was among the injured. The US government and the FBI were later criticized for pulling out of the investigation when it was believed they were on the verge of solving it. A June 1997 Washington Post article cited US government officials familiar with a classified FBI report on the investigation as saying the agency had tentatively pinned the blame on Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit.

Jousting between the US and China for influence has become more openly apparent. After the US suspended the delivery of military vehicles following the repatriation of ethnic Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China in December, Beijing stepped in with a $14 million pledge of military aid in May. The 256 military vehicles and 50,000 military uniforms covered under the pledge were delivered by China in June.
China has also provided small arms to Cambodia in recent years, including modern QBZ Chinese-made assault rifles for Cambodia's special forces units. With China keen to maintain its edge in Cambodia and expand its influence in the rest of the region, US policymakers may feel Washington can ill-afford to miss opportunities to improve ties. The upshot may be that strategic partners are less rigorously vetted as new friends are sought and military relationships developed. By Clifford McCoy freelance journalist.

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