U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday released a report claiming that Washington’s ongoing support for Cambodian security forces is inconsistent with U.S. Congress directives regarding aid to Cambodia.
HRW charges that last month’s 10-day Angkor Sentinel military exercise, undertaken by members of the U.S. military and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), breaches a bill signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in January.
“Congress made it clear in its last budget bill that it didn’t want training like this for Cambodia,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in the statement. “The Pentagon needs to explain why it circumvented Congress and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The U.S. provides $80 million in aid to Cambodia annually, only a portion of which is given directly to the government. The January budget bill suspended all of the direct funding except that for humanitarian aid and human rights training for RCAF.
The annual Angkor Sentinel exercises are, ostensibly, training for multinational peacekeeping forces. Photos posted to the official Angkor Sentinel Facebook page show Cambodian soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles engaged in combat exercises.
“It’s shocking that the U.S. military is providing armed soldiers training in kicking down doors soon after Cambodian armed forces killed protesting workers in Phnom Penh,” Mr. Adams said, referring to the lethal suppression of garment sector protests in January.
The U.S.’ Leahy Law, passed in 1997, stipulates that no military assistance shall be afforded to any foreign security unit if there is credible information that the unit has committed gross violations of human rights.
HRW said that both the military police and RCAF’s Brigade 911 were guilty of gross human rights abuses in the January suppression. Local rights group Licadho called the events of January 2 and 3 the “worst state violence against citizens in 15 years.”
In its report, HRW suggests that both the military police—or Gendarmerie—and Brigade 911 participated in Angkor Sentinel 2014.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, however, said it had followed protocol.
“All Cambodian individuals and military units that participated in Angkor Sentinel were thoroughly vetted in compliance with the Leahy Amendment,” Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said via email.
“No members of the 911 unit participated.”
Senior RCAF officials either declined to comment or could not be reached.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that while Cambodia’s recent contributions to global peacekeeping efforts had been “stellar,” the HRW report raised concerns that need to be investigated.
“The U.S. military is not in the business of training Cambodian forces to repress pro-democracy protests,” Mr. Thayer said.
“But the same skills they are being taught can be used for good one day and bad the next.”