Cambodia postponed U.S.-backed military assistance programs immediately after the July 28 national election, officials of both countries confirmed Tuesday, in a move that analysts said reflects a strain in relations after years of strengthening military ties.
The U.S. has in recent years expanded training and other funding for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), but the delay comes after U.S. lawmakers called for the U.S. to cut aid to Cambodia and the State Department’s insistence that allegations of irregularities at the polls last month should be credibly investigated.
In a press briefing in Washington on Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the suspension of military assistance was a unilateral move by the Cambodian government.
“Following the elections, the Cambodian Ministry of Defense postponed or canceled a number of international military programs, including with the United States. We would not categorize the cancelation of programs as a suspension of military ties. We haven’t indicated that we would suspend military ties,” Ms. Harf said.
She said the U.S. was waiting to see what Cambodia does next in terms of its military assistance and specified that any action taken by the U.S. would be taken in the light of how the political process in the aftermath of the election evolves.
Asked by a reporter if the U.S. was disappointed by the decision to postpone the programs, she said: “Well, again, we are kind of waiting to see what happens next. We don’t view this as a suspension of the overall military ties or relationship. We haven’t indicated that’s something we want. So this is, obviously, in the context of the National Election Committee [NEC] announcing some preliminary results, so we’re going to keep watching the process as it unfolds and see where we go from here.”
Ms. Harf declined to say if the U.S. would be raising the matter with the Cambodian government.
The U.S. Embassy said it had been told some military programs involving the U.S. and other countries had simply been postponed until a new government is formed. But a Defense Ministry official said that only U.S. military aid programs were put back, and insisted that both Cambodia and the U.S. had agreed upon the delay.
The Ministry of National Defense on Tuesday morning called a press conference during which Lieutenant General Nem Sowath, director-general of the general department of policy and foreign affairs at the Defense Ministry, confirmed to reporters that some joint programs with the U.S. had been delayed.
However, he said the delay of the programs was not related to the elections, though he struggled to explain clearly the reason for the delay or for its timing.
“Cambodia has to do good preparation and find [RCAF] experts who will attend [U.S. military assistance programs],” he said. “So we delay for some time. It does not impact on any aspect of our duties to the country,” he said.
“I want to explain that the word delay is different from suspend or cancel. Delay means now we put it off until later,” Lt. Gen. Sowath added, declining to say when the delay would be over.
He insisted that military ties with the U.S. would continue, naming the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program as an example.
“On FMF, we have already agreed with the U.S. We still expect them to provide more aid through the year as planned. Currently, there is some equipment and other things [promised under FMF] that have not yet arrived, and some have arrived,” he said, adding that a maritime security training program was also still ongoing.
He said Cambodia had received $477,000 of FMF money so far this year.
While the State Department does not publish up-to-date figures, in 2011, Cambodia was expected to receive $1 million of FMF funds in total. Total assistance from the U.S. to Cambodia was $76 million last year.
Although the State Department’s Ms. Harf said other countries’ assistance programs have also been put back, Lt. Gen. Sowath only said U.S. aid programs had been delayed.
The Australian, South Korean and French embassies in Phnom Penh all confirmed Tuesday that their military assistance programs are continuing unaffected. The Japanese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh declined to name other countries whose aid programs had been delayed and stressed that only “limited” programs had been delayed in Cambodia.
“The affected number of U.S.-Cambodia bilateral activities largely involved senior leadership engagement. Working-level events are continuing as planned,” he said by email.
Though Mr. McIntosh did not specify which activities were postponed, the U.S. in the past has conducted exercises with Cambodia’s National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces, which are headed by Lieutenant General Hun Manet, the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Last August, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia thanked Lt. Gen. Manet for hosting U.S. Special Forces in Cambodia for the Vector Balance Canoe training exercise.
Mr. McIntosh said the Cambodian government had assured the U.S. the delays were “only postponements, not cancellations, until a new government is formed as a result of the July 28 national election.
“As for more insight into these postponements, I refer you to the Cambodian government for any clarity regarding its announcement.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong all declined to provide clarity beyond referring to the Defense Ministry’s explanation.
Ahead of the national election, a U.S. congressional subcommittee discussed whether the U.S. should cut aid to Cambodia in the event of an unfair vote.
The U.S. is yet to endorse the results of the election, which preliminary CPP and NEC figures say the ruling party won by a relatively close margin.
The day after the vote, the State Department pointed out unaddressed flaws in Cambodia’s electoral process and called for a credible and transparent investigation into allegations of irregularities.
Within days, Prime Minister Hun Sen fired back by saying the U.S. should go ahead and sever aid, since Cambodia’s main backer, China, would fill any assistance vacuum.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An met with U.S. Ambassador William Todd on Friday and discussed the post-election political situation. Ek Tha, spokesman for the Council of Ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit insisted that military assistance was not discussed during that meeting.
Sok Touch, deputy director general of the International Relations Institute of Cambodia, said he thought the delay was a sign of strain between Cambodia and the U.S.
“There is political tension because we have seen people in the U.S. calling for an aid cut but the [Cambodian] government leader just said he didn’t care because the aid money just goes to NGOs,” he said.
“But I think RCAF needs military aid from the U.S. to strengthen its ability because Cambodian soldiers have weaknesses in technical abilities.”
Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said military ties between the U.S. and Cambodia had been gaining strength since 2008 as the U.S. has stepped up assistance and Cambodia has asked for more training.
“This has led to annual ship visits, small scale joint naval training exercises, and growing U.S. support for Cambodia’s participation in United Nations peacekeeping in the southern Sudan, Chad and Lebanon,” Mr. Thayer said by email.
However, he said, events around the election may have worsened relations.
“These actions give rise that more is at issue than a bureaucratic management issue in the ministry of defense,” Mr. Thayer said.
“Hun Sen appears to be playing an ambiguous game of brinkmanship by hinting that should the U.S. press harder on the election issues to the extent it cuts or threatens to cut aid, Cambodia will unilaterally curtail military-to-military ties and seek support from China. This would represent a major setback in the positive trajectory of bilateral military ties.”
Cambodia has proactively canceled aid projects before. In 2009, the government terminated a World Bank land-titling program after the bank raised concerns about evictions at the Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh. The bank later suspended all new aid to Cambodia over the resettlement of villagers to make way for a real estate development by a company belonging to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.