Washington must put measures in place to ensure that military assistance provided to Cambodia will not be used by authorities to commit rights abuses, a nongovernmental organization said Tuesday, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta prepares to visit the country next week.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with Cambodian rights group Licadho, said Panetta should work harder to guarantee that U.S. military aid to the country is used for “the right purposes” and not to protect private property or to assist in forced evictions of residents living on land granted as concessions to companies.
The U.S. Secretary of Defense will hold bilateral talks with his Cambodian counterpart, General Tea Banh, during a one-day visit to Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. His visit will coincide with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers' Meeting Retreat, also to be held in the capital, on Nov. 15-17.
The talks will be held ahead of an expected visit to Cambodia by President Barack Obama to attend the East Asia Summit in the capital on Nov. 18-20.
“We request that [Washington] negotiate to ensure the use of U.S military assistance for the right purposes—in order to prevent human rights abuses,” Am Sam Ath told RFA's Khmer service in an interview.
“Some individuals have used U.S military assistance against Ministry [of Defense] guidelines. They have been used to abuse human rights,” he said, adding that Licadho had reported several incidents of rights violations committed by soldiers.
“We have seen private companies use military police and soldiers to protect private property. This goes against the code of conduct for soldiers who are supposed to protect our country,” Am Sam Ath said.
“We have seen U.S. trucks, which were given as military aid, used to transport soldiers to protect private companies or for forced evictions.”
Nem Sowath, director general of Cambodia’s Defence Ministry’s policy and foreign affairs department, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post Tuesday as saying that the bolstering of military ties and “co-operation in military human resources development” would be among the topics of discussions during Panetta’s trip.
The paper said that military aid spending in Cambodia almost tripled this year to U.S. $18.2 million. It did not provide details.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, U.S. material assistance to Cambodia has ended up in the hands of “rights-abusing military units” such as “Brigade 31 … which in 2008 used U.S.-donated trucks to forcibly move villagers evicted from their land in Kampot province.”
In 2008, the U.S government donated at least 31 military trucks to the Cambodian military, according to the U.S. Embassy.
Two years later, the Obama administration suspended a shipment of military vehicles to Cambodia, after Phnom Penh repatriated 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum-seekers to China despite an outcry from Western countries and the United Nations.
Following the suspension, China promptly donated more than 250 military trucks to the Southeast Asian nation.
In November last year, Cambodia's military police and the United States Marines conducted a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in Cambodia, aimed at strengthening the two countries' military ties.
Am Sam Ath requested that American defense officials who train Cambodian military personnel in the U.S. work to ensure that the soldiers use their new skills to protect the country and serve the people, rather than to protect private companies.
Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh could not be reached for comment. The spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia referred questions about military aid and training to the Department of Defense in Washington.
Panetta’s visit comes as Cambodia beefs up its military.
The Cambodian government had recently received a shipment of tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) from Europe.
Tea Banh confirmed the purchase of the vehicles, but did not provide details of their origin or cost. He said that the equipment is needed to upgrade Cambodia’s military capability.
News of the shipment drew criticism from opposition Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann, who called on the government to make all future military acquisitions transparent and through the country’s parliament, adding that he could see no reason why the purchase had been kept a secret.
The ASEAN defense ministers from the 10 member states are expected to discuss national defense and regional security issues, according to a statement released Monday by Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense.
Cambodia currently holds the chair of ASEAN, which also includes Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
At the last defense ministers meeting held on May 28-30 in Phnom Penh, China agreed to establish a military training facility in Cambodia and provide other defense aid to its Southeast Asian ally.
During next week’s retreat, Cambodia will hand over the role as chair of the talks to Brunei.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.