Cambodia will not send combat troops to Iraq but is considering sending police, military police, demining units and medical staff to bolster US operations in the war-torn country, a government official said Wednesday.
US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli asked Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 10 to send non-combatant Cambodian personnel to Iraq, said Om Yentieng, an advisor to Hun Sen and head of the government’s human rights commission.
“Cambodian people are fed up with the war. We don’t have any intention of sending Cambodian soldiers to war,” Om Yentieng said.
He said Hun Sen would examine the progress of RCAF troops recently deployed as part of a UN mission in Sudan, before deciding whether to comply with the US request for deployment in Iraq.
Sentiment about Cambodian involvement in Iraq remained divided Wednesday.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said supporting the US in Iraq was unconstitutional and dangerous for Cambodia’s security.
Cambodia could better help the Iraq people by offering itself and its recent history as an example of the disastrous consequences of civil war, he said.
“It puts the nation in danger if we join America’s side,” Lao Mong Hay said.
“No Cambodian should get involved on the American side but we can help the Iraq people through our direct call to them to stop killing one another and a call to Muslim countries and the world to use influence on either side [to stop the conflict],” he said.
Article 53 of the Constitution states that Cambodia will not interfere in any other country’s internal affairs, and that it will not join in any military alliance or military pact, which is incompatible with its policy of neutrality.
“Sending help is not right,” said Vuthy Sam, senior program officer at the NGO Womyn’s Agenda for Change. “It would just be showing off, like ‘look, Cambodia is a poor country but has something to offer the world.’ It’s a political game.”
He said it was possible Cambodia’s reputation could be improved by sending troops, but added that it was also possible the world would start viewing the country as a lapdog of the US and Britain.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Ahmed Yahya, an ethnic Cham Muslim, said he had no qualms about sending Cambodians to Iraq, adding that the country was also obligated to repay humanitarian assistance from the UN in 1993.
“I would like to go, if I could help them,” he added.
Khem Sophoan, director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center, which helped train the demining forces now with the UN in Sudan, said it would be very difficult to say Cambodian personnel would not be caught in combat zones, as fighting in Iraq takes place on streets and in neighborhoods.
He also said it was pointless for demining soldiers to go now.
“We can only clear mines in safe areas, not in battlefields,” he said. “If we go to clear mines during times of war, it’s useless. If we clear the mines, the Iraqis will lay down more.”
One foreign diplomat said on condition of anonymity that it made sense for Cambodia to consider the US request.
He said Cambodian officials have attempted to establish the country as an international player for more than a decade, and that assisting US operations in Iraq would bolster that image.
The diplomat said that compared with Iraq’s capabilities, Cambodian nurses, doctors and police could probably make significant contributions.
However, he said the US Embassy should be asked why the US would request help from the Cambodian police force, which is known for beating protesters and extorting money from the public, and whose chief was denied an entrance visa to the US over human trafficking allegations.
Government officials have strongly denied the allegations which, according to the US State Department’s anti-human trafficking office, led to National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy being denied a US entrance visa in 2005.
The ultra-nationalist Khmer Front Party President Suth Dina said he supported sending Cambodian aid to Iraq, adding that it was time for Cambodia to repay US assistance during the Lon Nol regime.
“This is good for Cambodia to gain its reputation before the international community,” he said.
Suth Dina went further and said that if his fringe party wins National Assembly seats in the 2008 election, members would push to amend the Constitution’s pledge of neutrality.
Capping that achievement, Suth Dina also said that his party wanted the US to establish military bases inside Cambodia.
“Sending Cambodian troops to Iraq is for the sake of the country,” he added.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said Mussomeli would not comment.