The US could resume military training for RCAF “in a small way” after the July elections if those elections are conducted in a free and fair manner, a top US official said in Phnom Penh last week.
In an interview at the US Embassy Friday, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly also said the US government’s financial contribution to the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be determined after July 27, “depending on how the elections [are conducted] and depending on how [the tribunal] is implemented.”
Re-establishing a military relationship with Cambodia would give the US “some idea who these people are and, more importantly, they have some idea who we are and what we are interested in,” he said, referring to Cambodia’s soldiers.
The US provided about $1 million a year in non-lethal aid to the Cambodian military in the early 1990s, with US soldiers training Cambodians in demining and engineering techniques.
In June 1997, the US and Cambodian navies conducted joint training exercises. But the US cut off bilateral aid after the factional fighting that took place in July of that same year, and the military relationship between the US and Cambodia “went to nothing,” Kelly said.
Co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath welcomed the prospect of even minimal US military assistance, saying that Cambodian officers need training in every field. With decades of warfare under their belt, Cambodian soldiers have lots of fighting experience, but are behind every other country in Asean when it comes to knowledge of modern weaponry, he said.
“[US military aid] has been a taboo subject for us since 1997,” the prince said on Monday. “We have never raised the issue. We have just waited to see on the attitude of the US.”
Consultations with the US Congress would have to be conducted before a military relationship could be resurrected, Kelly said.
“If we block this off for a whole generation—as we have done for countries like Pakistan and Indonesia—then we start wondering why everybody in the military…is lined up with somebody else,” he said.
Kelly would not comment on evidence that the US government reportedly handed to Cambodian authorities recently—evidence that was used to arrest two Thai nationals and an Egyptian on terrorism charges. He did say that Cambodian police acted “appropriately” in making the May 25 arrests. Cambodian officials have said the arrests were made through the help of US information.
Kelly spent most of last week accompanying US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the Asean Regional Forum meetings.
Before leaving Cambodia on Friday, Kelly had breakfast with opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his wife, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, and later met with Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
He also sat for an interview with Beehive Radio and met with officials from election NGOs, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
The US is spending $8.5 million through NGOs on the election process.
On Thursday, Sam Rainsy told Powell that next month’s election will not be free and fair. But that doesn’t mean that the opposition leader has “given up and written off the process,” Kelly said on Friday.
“You can’t gainsay his determination. He is not sitting around and waiting for lightning to strike. He is working…. I think he does see that opportunities for this election are better than they were in 1998 and 1993,” he said.
When asked about the importance of the Khmer Rouge tribunal to the administration of US President George W Bush, Kelly said it was not a “big priority.”
“But we think of it as something that needs to happen. And it needs to be as good as it can be,” he said. “If we seek a perfect and ideal Khmer Rouge tribunal, we are waiting until even the children of the Khmer Rouge are dead of old age. It is certain to be imperfect, but here we are, it is 2003, and we haven’t had anything.
“I don’t think that for an awful lot of people in Cambodia in 2003 that this is the No 1 concern in their minds…. People here have to live their lives and half the population weren’t even born when [the Khmer Rouge] came through.”
Kelly also said the Bush administration is supportive of US Senator Mitch McConnell’s criticisms of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
McConnell, who is chairman of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, last year called for non-violent “regime change” in Cambodia and has more recently blamed Hun Sen for the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots. In May, the senator urged international donors to denounce the CPP-led government’s handling of the election process.
The State Department is primarily interested in building democracy here and wouldn’t use the phrase “regime change” in reference to Cambodia, Kelly said. But any State Department official would be “stupid” to oppose McConnell’s stance on Cambodia, he said.