Is Cambodia Ready to Counter Terrorism?

In the coming months, peace-time security in Cambodia will be tested as never before.

On Nov 3, the first of four regional summits scheduled for Phnom Penh kickoff with the Greater Mekong Subregion Summit. The following day, 10 Asean leaders join hands with their Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and India counterparts for regional power talks.

Terrorism is likely to be a key discussion topic at the Asean summit, just as it has been at regional meetings and among heads-of-state since the Sept 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

But the practical aspects of countering a terrorist threat in Cambodia has aroused a flurry of whispered concerns ahead of Phnom Penh’s most important red-carpet event in years.

Cambodia does not have a specialized anti-terrorist unit. But the country’s first elite, anti-terrorism unit is currently in training and is suffering from such a severe lack of resources that police officers in more developed countries are better equipped.

No terrorist threats have been identified, according to Cambodia’s top police and military officials. However, because of weak law-enforcement, cheap weapons, an ingrained culture of graft and porous borders, Cambodia has been marked as the weak-link in regional anti-crime and security efforts, making it a possibly inviting location for militant groups, military experts say.

The forthcoming summits present security and logistical nightmares that leave some experts with the impressions that Cambodia is ill-prepared for a “war on terrorism”-especially if it happens in its own backyard.

“Terror groups are being forced out, and the countries to which they can go are fewer and fewer,” said one military expert.

Cambodia is unique in that it doesn’t possess a dedicated security force specially trained and equipped for anti-terrorism measures.

“The knowledge that a country has an anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism force is a deterrent,” the military expert said. “Right now, Cambodia does not have that. Cambodia is vulnerable.

“You can’t have a worldwide initiative against terror if there are countries where terror activities are supported or there are countries where they can’t do anything about it.”

Cambodia should be included in the last bracket of countries, the military expert said.

In July, Asean officials endorsed proposals to join the US-led “war on terrorism” amid talk of the growing security threats posed by Islamic militant groups operating in the Southeast Asia region.

Bombed out of Afghanistan, remnants of al-Qaida have also been suspected of setting up bases in Southeast Asia. And security analysts fear that some Asean countries with large Muslim populations have the potential to become hotbeds of militant activity.

Singapore, one of the safest countries in the region, late last year uncovered an elaborate plot by an al-Qaida-linked group to bomb the US Embassy and other Western targets.

The US deployed elite troops this year to the southern Philippines to help train the country’s military to combat Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who are suspected of having links to Osama bin Laden.

Thailand has also increased security in its southern provinces following the killing of 13 policemen and three civilians since December by what police suspect are Islamic separatists.

Active in the 1970s and early 1980s, the main rebel group later disbanded after a general amnesty. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said conservative Muslims may have carried out the recent attacks because of policemen ignoring vice in the area.

Broadcasting network CNN also recently obtained video footage that reportedly showed al-Qaida fighters training in Burma in the 1990s.

A number of leaders scheduled to attend the forthcoming summits face potentially violent opposition in their own countries, and Cambodia could present terrorists with opportunities they would not have elsewhere, the military expert said.

The Cambodian government has successfully organized and protected dozens of visiting leaders, but November’s Asean summit will bring together 15 head-of-states, ministers and other officials numbering in the region of 1,000 people.

Foreign dignitaries adjust their security arrangements depending on the particular country they are visiting, and how they view the risks, an Asian diplomat said.

Deciding to take armed bodyguards to the Asean Summit will usually depend on individual countries, but in the past Cambodian authorities have deployed as many as 2,000 security personnel for a single visiting head-of-state, the diplomat said.

But to continue that level of security for the Asean summit “would mean 15 times 2,000,” the diplomat said.

Cambodian officials believe terror networks are not operating in Cambodia. There are no signs of such activity and the country’s security apparatus-which has operated during decades of civil war-is capable of dealing with any threats, officials say.

But, for the very reason that Cambodia retains a relatively low profile in the “war on terrorism” in Asia could make it a choice relocation site of terrorist groups.

Since Cambodia’s first general election in 1993, the country has at various times been a quiet backwater for groups as diverse as the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, triad gangs from China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan and members of Japan’s once notorious Red Army.

A vestige of Cambodia’s tightly controlled communist past, the Interior Ministry and the military’s intelligence unit still retain a large network of informants and spies which are an effective deterrent to terrorist groups, military experts and diplomats said.

However, dealing with hostage situations, freeing people from either kidnapper or an airplane hijacking calls for specific skills and capabilities.

Cambodia does not yet have that expertise, military officials said.

Rebel Yell

Sporting cheap rubber sandals, rusted AK-47 rifles and saffron-colored headbands, around 50 farmers-turned-freedom-fighters threw Phnom Penh into turmoil for a just one night two years ago.

Small explosions and tracer fire signaled the start of their Nov 24, 2000 assault on the massively defended Ministry of Defense by the then-obscure group that called itself the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. Several died, mowed down by heavy machine-gun fire from armored vehicles defending the walled compound.

Only an armored-plated vehicle kept city Governor Chea Sophara from a withering barrage of “friendly fire” unleashed by soldiers inside the ministry. One Cambodian-American was also shot several times in his car that night and a European was also shot when he failed to stop at a checkpoint.

The CFF attack was a failure, but it did push Vietnam’s President Tran Duc Luong to postpone a scheduled visit to Phnom Penh.

It also showed government forces could contain a conflagration in the capital.

But how skillfully and competently that was done remains questionable, military experts say.

Because of the number of military, civilian police, military police, local militia, and bodyguard units in the capital, a vast arsenal of firepower is at hand but its deployment is unwieldly and many times no one is quiet sure who is in command, experts say.

When three Western tourists were taken hostage by Khmer Rouge rebels in 1994, the military strategy to free the captives consisted of heavy artillery raining shells onto the mountain-top stronghold in Kampot province.

Khmer Rouge sources on Phnom Voar still blame the eventual execution of the three young backpackers on the military’s decision to use heavy firepower in a situation that clearly called for tact.

Trained and motivated militants, unafraid to die for their cause, would be a far greater test for Cambodian troops who have mostly been trained and tested in battlefield combat.

Clad in baggy black uniforms and tight ski-masks, the elite 12-man anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ 911 Para-Commando Battalion showed off their skills for a select group of foreign and Cambodian military officials last month.

Chosen from the ranks of the 911 commandos, the “First Team” anti-terrorism unit raised a few eyebrows with their demonstration of close-quarters tactical shooting and long-range sniper skills.

Six months ago, 50 commandos began training for a spot in the anti-terrorism unit. Twenty were eventually picked based on mental and physical ability.

Half way through the intensive one-year program and the strains of training have trimmed the group down to a dozen men.

“This is the first time for anti-terrorism training in Cambodia,” said Chap Peakdei, commander of the 911 para-commandos.

“All countries in the developed world have anti-terrorism, so for our country it is new, but not a surprise,” he said “We do not have such a unit, so we need one.”

But the anti-terrorist unit is being held back by a lack of resources and specialized equipment for advanced training in hijack and hostage rescue, said Chap Peakdei.

For example, the AK-47 rifle-although reliable and abundant-is not accurate and too powerful for safe use by elite units specializing in close quarters combat and hostage situations, said Yun Chumnith, assistant to Chap Peakdei.

“We have the ability, but we don’t have the weaponry,” said Yun Chumnith, streaming off a shopping list of equipment the anti-terrorist unit needs, but is unlikely to get.

Modern weapons, stun- and smoke-grenades, night-vision equipment, personal communications equipment, specialized explosives to breach buildings and even airplanes and proper boots. The list is endless, Yun Chumnith said.

“We have the spirit, we have the skills, but not the equipment,” he said.

Cambodia’s military ranks are grossly over-staffed for peacetime, and the estimated 110,000 troops still on the roll calls are notoriously undertrained and underpaid, unlike some of the country’s top brass whose wealth is often regarded by many Cambodians as staggering.

Individuals may be rich, but the Ministry of Defense is definitely not and has no funds for new equipment, said co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath.

“As an underdeveloped country, we lack everything in terms of training and equipment. We need training-most importantly-provided by the Western world,” said Prince Sirirath.

Cross training with Asian and Western special forces are key for Cambodia’s anti-terrorist unit, said the unit’s foreign instructor.

“Terrorism is an international trend. [The unit] has to be comfortable with foreign cultures and training,” said the instructor.

But despite the global nature of the US-led “war on terrorism,” Cambodia’s new anti-terrorist unit is unlikely to get training or assistance from the elders of the elite military world.

The US imposed a total ban on military aid to Cambodia since the 1997 factional fighting, when troops loyal to then second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in bloody street battles.

Disapproval of the CPP’s actions are unlikely to see a resumption of that aid, and with international donor focused on slashing Cambodia’s once-burgeoning military budget-which has been halved since 1994-there are few funds for military upgrading.

But, some military experts say that helping Cambodia develop a counter-terrorism unit differs from providing conventional military assistance, and should be treated as a separate issue.

The government could improve its chances for receiving that assistance if it formulated an anti-terrorism policy that had a clearly stated command and control structure for the specialized unit.

“If there was an incident at Pochentong, it would be better for us to say Cambodia has the capability to resolve the incident by itself than to bring forces from outside,” the military expert said.

A second military expert agreed that the anti-terrorism unit appeared to be well trained, but it was unrealistic to expect it to reach operational capability in just one year and without specialized equipment.

Elite, well-equipped units such as the British and Australian SAS, the US Delta Forces, and Germany’s GSG9 normally take longer than 12 months to “stand up” for operational use, the experts said.

The unit needs assistance to reach that level, he said.

Prevention Better Than Cure

Delegates to the Asean summit will not face a show of security strength in the form of heavily armed troops and numerous checkpoints, during their visit, said National Police Director General Hok Lundy.

Police have been issued new communications equipment, hand-held metal detectors and x-ray equipment which will be set up at all meeting venues and hotels where delegates will stay during the summit, he said.

Pochentong Airport, considered one of the most critical security locations, will be installed with closed-circuit television cameras operated by police specialists, Hok Lundy said.

“Showing weapons is a not a good sign of security. Having information in advance that can prevent a situation is good security,” Hok Lundy said.

But a Pochentong Airport official who has a wide experience of international airport security said that Cambodia’s main international gateway needs specialists.

“The airport is where the terrorists can pass, so I think the government understands they need to have a special police force at the airport,” he said. “They are aware of the risks.”

In the event of an attack, the airport’s security plan entails notifying police, evacuating and shutting the airport and waiting for the experts to arrive.

Just who those experts are is still a question.

There is an anti-terrorist police department at the Interior Ministry, but it too lacks equipment, said its director Police General Kun Sam Oeun.

“We have trained in everything—some police officers trained in Vietnam, some trained in Russia. But the problem is, we have no equipment,” said Kun Sam Oeun.

“If anything happens we will call the special unit at 911,” he said.

There are no signs of terrorist activity in Cambodia and after decades of warfare the country is familiar with ensuring safety and security, no matter what the conditions, said Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara.

Security will be tight, but the city will not be grid-locked by security cordons during the meeting places during the summits, he said. Meetings are scheduled to be held at the Hotel Inter-Continental and the Hotel Cambodiana, with delegates staying at several hotels around the city.

“If there are too many checkpoints it will not be relaxed,” Chea Sophara said.

“I don’t want to close the city. If you close, you may as well build a fence with [iron] bars…. I want the delegates and heads-of state to see Cambodian life,” Chea Sophara said.

The bulk of security will be in the hands of undercover police officers, Chea Sophara said. Some 8,000 municipal police and 450 military police are to be stationed around the city.

But even if Cambodia has an anti-terrorist plan and a specialized unit to deal with a kidnap or hijack scenario, such skills may be obsolete in the current trend of international terrorist attacks.

Militant groups are less focused on snatching newspaper headlines by laying siege to buildings or by hijacking airlines and then issuing lists of demands to further their cause.

Largely because of the successes of anti-terrorism units in countering such attacks worldwide, militants no longer issue demands, give warnings or ask for negotiations.

Now, ii is only after an attack has taken place that a country: “quickly understands what the attacking party wants,” said the first military expert.

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