Ahead of a meeting scheduled for today between the civilian leaders of the US and Cambodian militaries, US lawmakers have called on the US Defense Department to explain its assistance to Cambodian military units accused of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses.
In a Friday letter to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, eight US lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties cited testimony at a recent Congressional hearing on human rights that alleged Cambodian airborne, infantry and naval units, including bodyguards to Prime Minister Hun Sen, had been involved in murder, violent evictions and a 1997 political massacre.
Under US federal law, it is illegal to provide military aid to any foreign military unit believed responsible for human rights violations.
Defense Secretary Gates is scheduled to meet in Washington this afternoon with Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh for a broad-ranging review of Cambodian defense policy, US officials said last week.
In testimony before the Sept 10 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a newly created panel of lawmakers in the lower chamber of the US legislature, Human Rights Watch alleged that US training and assistance has been offered to Mr Hun Sen’s bodyguards, to the 70th Infantry Brigade, the 911th Airborne Brigade and to the 31st Naval Infantry Brigade.
“While the United States should work with foreign governments to professionalize and train security forces to respect human rights and the rule of law, we must ensure that such assistance and training is not awarded to members of the security forces that have committed serious human rights violations,” said the letter signed by Commission Co-Chairman Frank Wolf, Republican of the US state of Virginia, and seven other congressmen.
Under the Foreign Military Financing program, which is jointly administered by the US departments of Defense and State, Cambodia has received $4.5 million in nonlethal equipment and technical assistance since 2006.
Major General Mao Sophann, commander of the 70th Infantry Brigade, from which the prime minister’s bodyguards are drawn, confirmed yesterday that his military formation has received US assistance, but referred all questions to the Defense Ministry.
However, the ministry’s spokesman, Undersecretary of State Chhum Sucheat, said yesterday that he was unaware of any US assistance to the military units identified by Human Rights Watch.
He declined to discuss alleged human rights abuses.
The US Embassy said yesterday that US military aid is only awarded after a screening process.
“As with all countries, all foreign military personnel participating in US training are subject to vetting practices to ensure that there is not credible evidence that they have committed gross human rights violations,” said embassy spokesman John Johnson.
Geoff Morrell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said Wednesday that in light of what he called Cambodia’s recent advances in political freedoms, such as last year’s peaceful national elections, the US military was able to continue cooperating with the Cambodian armed forces.
“We are well aware of the challenges that the Cambodian government has faced and that the Cambodian people have faced,” he said by telephone from Washington. “But the department is also aware of the progress that has been made in political freedoms in recent years.”
Mr Morrell also said that Cambodia is currently undergoing a strategic defense review and that Mr Gates will share US military best practices that are likely to be incorporated in changes made to the Cambodian military structure.
No sales of military equipment to Cambodia are now being considered, according to Mr Morrell.
According to the US Embassy’s website, the 70th Infantry in May received training in processing evidence from the scene of bomb blasts, not from the US military but from US federal police.
Of a consignment of 31 trucks the US gave to RCAF in June of 2008, five were destined for the 31st naval infantry, according to the website.
According to Human Rights Watch, the 31st Naval Infantry then used the trucks to move Kampot province villagers forcibly evicted as part of a land dispute.
Human Rights Watch also claimed that the 31st Infantry, which was transferred to the command of the Royal Cambodian Navy in either 2006 or 2007 and was previously known under the regimental references 44th Division and 44th Battalion, had allegedly executed Funcinpec soldiers during the 1997 factional fighting and later shot at UN human rights workers who investigated the killings.
“Although US military aid is intended to improve the professionalism of RCAF forces, there are disturbing signs that RCAF is becoming more politicized and less professional and that known human rights abusers are gaining increasing power within the RCAF structure,” Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director Sophie Richardson told US lawmakers in testimony delivered Sept 10.
Rear Admiral Srun Saroeun, commander of the 31st Naval Infantry, and Lieutenant General Hing Bun Heang, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief and commander of Mr Hun Sen’s bodyguards, could not be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)