US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh are to hold face-to-face meetings in Washington on Sept 21, a spokesman for the Pentagon and RCAF officials said yesterday.
“He is meeting with [Mr Banh] on Monday,” Geoff Morrell, press secretary for the US Defense Department, said by telephone from Washington.
Cambodian officials also said yesterday that Mr Banh is to be accompanied by RCAF Brigadier General Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, who is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and head of the Defense Ministry’s antiterrorism department, and other defense officials who will travel to the US on Friday.
The meeting between the civilian heads of the US and Cambodian militaries will represent the highest-level contact that Cambodian defense officials have had with the US Defense Department since the restoration of multi-party democracy in Cambodia in 1993.
Officials interviewed yesterday provided only scant detail on the purpose of the meeting.
The Pentagon’s Mr Morrell said he was unfamiliar with the purpose of Mr Gates’ meeting with Mr Banh but that further details would be forthcoming.
“These meetings allow heads of defense to talk about military-to-military issues,” Mr Morrell said.
RCAF Lieutenant General Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s general department of policy and foreign affairs, also said the meetings would likely concern defense cooperation between Phnom Penh and Washington.
“Army meetings always discuss army issues,” Mr Sowath said.
Despite a stream of port calls by US Navy ships and high-level military visitors since 2006, including former US Pacific Command Commander Admiral William Fallon and former US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Gary Roughead, US defense cooperation with Cambodia in recent years has generally involved English-language instruction and donations of non-lethal equipment and old transport vehicles.
However, the US earlier this month handed over a consignment of several thousand Kevlar helmets, field packs and camouflage uniforms.
Following the factional fighting of 1997, in which CPP militias loyal to then-second Prime Minister Hun Sen routed troops loyal to then Funcinpec First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, US lawmakers imposed a nearly 10-year ban on all direct assistance to the Cambodian government.
At Congressional hearings in Washington last week on human rights in Cambodia, US lawmakers discussed the possibility of tying US trade agreements to holding Cambodian military personnel responsible for rights abuses.
Mr Gates, who was appointed in 2006 by former US President George W Bush, became earlier this year the only US Defense Secretary to be held over from a different administration when he was reappointed by current US President Barack Obama.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)