sihanoukville – The US Navy returned to Cambodia for the first time in over 30 years Friday with the arrival of the guided missile frigate USS Gary at the port in Sihanoukville.
Speaking to reporters in front of the nearly 136-meter-long vessel Saturday, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli noted that the last US warship to visit Cambodia did so in 1975—before most of the Gary’s crew were born.
Mussomeli acknowledged that relations between the US and Cambodia have not always been friendly. But the ship’s visit, he said, “demonstrates the United States and Cambodia’s commitment to work together as friends,” Mussomeli said.
When asked how much of an impact China’s growing influence in the region has had on driving the recent warming of relations between Washington and Phnom Penh, the ambassador replied: “The one-word answer is: none.”
“China is a regional power and they have their own interests in this region and they are not in conflict with our own as a world power,” he added.
Mussomeli said that what is driving the relationship between the two nations is the Cambodian government’s commitment to improving governance and the lives of the people. He added that Cambodia has been an excellent partner on counter-terrorism, health issues and the search for the remains of US soldiers lost during the US war in Vietnam.
Mussomeli said that he believes the US Congress should lift restrictions on directly funding the Cambodian government.
“This will be a very good thing,” Mussomeli said, but added that the restrictions would stay in place until other unspecified matters not related to Cambodia had been resolved.
Commander Joe Deleon, the Gary’s commanding officer, said that his sailors were going to put on a firefighting demonstration for representatives of the Cambodian navy, but that no military exercises have been scheduled.
“The goal is to demonstrate one of the capabilities that can overlap between the two navies,” he said.
About 40 sailors from the Gary spent Saturday renovating a small medical clinic in Andong Thmor district’s Prey Nup commune. Clad in navy blue outfits, the officers and enlisted men gave the small clinic a paint job, new gutters and cleared the grounds of garbage and dead trees—including felling one tree that unexpectedly contained a small colony of surprised bats.
At a nearby pagoda, US and Cambodian navy medical and dental personnel examined hundreds of people from the community and provided treatment when possible Saturday and Sunday.
Speaking during a quick break from repairing the clinic, US serviceman Kent Meier said that Cambodia was a noticeable change from other ports the Gary had visited.
“It’s different from what I expected…. Mostly because of the poverty,” he said. He added that he was also particularly struck by how friendly and helpful Cambodians were.
The last US Navy ship to dock in Cambodia was the USS Mayaguez, which did so involuntarily after being stormed by the Khmer Rouge in May 1975. The incident prompted US President Gerald Ford to send marines to Cambodia to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez and to order the bombing of a fuel depot in Sihanoukville, then called Kompong Som.
The Mayaguez incident and the disastrous battle on Koh Tang island between the rescuing marines and a larger force of battle-hardened Khmer Rouge represented the last time that US forces engaged in ground combat in Southeast Asia.