U.S. Aid to Cambodia's Corrupt Military

The "he said, she said" dispute over the claim that the Cambodian regime suspended or cancelled international military cooperation with the U.S. offers an ideal opportunity for the Obama administration to right a wrong-headed policy of providing aid to a corrupt and politicized military implicated in brutal human rights abuses.

Cambodia's military openly and illegally campaigned for former Khmer Rouge commander Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party, a repressive communist kleptocracy, and created an atmosphere of voter intimidation in the recent July 28th elections marred by fraud according to Human Rights Watch

According to the Pnomh Penh Post, last April, Cambodia's pre-eminent environment activist, Chut Wutty was shot dead by military policemen protecting an illegal logging concession. Three weeks after Wutty's murder, soldiers hired to protect the economic concession of a company murdered a 14-year-old girl. In September, Cambodian investigative journalist Hang Serei Odom was hacked to death and stuffed in the trunk by a military officer protecting another concession.

Tens of thousands of people around the country have been forcibly evicted without compensation, and some killed, in land-grabs, often in connection with economic land concessions granted to powerful foreign-owned companies. Cambodia's Army, commanded by Hun Sen's son, has a rent-a-cop policy -- an army for hire -- paid by the companies to carry out the evictions and guard their assets. Military trucks provided by the U.S. are used to transport soldiers for evictions and to protect private companies and are often seen hauling illegal timber cut from endangered forests.

It is outrageous that the United States supplies millions of dollars of equipment and other aid to Cambodia's army while it engages in such flagrant abuses of human rights. U.S. military aid to Cambodia should be limited to only training its military on preventing human rights abuses and for disaster response and civic action; and it must be closely monitored to avoid continued misuse. The Obama Administration attempts to justify turning a blind eye toward abuses by the Cambodian military on the necessity to gain influence in Cambodia in competition with China; a futile endeavor that it cannot win and a pipe dream at best. When the Obama administration suspended a shipment of about two dozen military vehicles to Cambodia in 2010, China promptly stepped in and donated over 250 military trucks. In October last year, Cambodia received about 100 tanks and 40 APCs from Ukraine -- a shipment that marked one of the largest ever, suggesting that European arms dealers do not discriminate against Chinese money.

On Wednesday morning (08/14/13), a port official confirmed that "more than 80 tanks and APCs, and... about 100 containers of bullets and mortar shells," from an Eastern European country arrived at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port. The arrival comes just two weeks after the Chinese government gave 1,000 handguns and 50,000 rounds of ammunition to Cambodian police forces. Officials insisted the handover had been inked long before, but the delivery raised eyebrows among analysts who suggested it had been timed to coincide with post-election unrest.  On Thursday, eyewitnesses in Preah Sihanouk province said they saw more than 20 heavily armed vehicles --including at least 16 tanks -- at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port being transported by truck up National Road 4. Cambodia's Defense Minister Tea Banh said that the truckloads of tanks and mounted rocket launchers seen by witnesses leaving the Port in the direction of Phnom Penh would be used to protect the country in the case that someone "tries to destroy the nation." Where the U.S. has a distinct advantage and can gain influence with the disadvantaged Cambodian people is through providing humanitarian aid and economic development assistance at the grass roots level rather than aid to a morally corrupt regime's military.

And the band plays on.

Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a foreign service officer and is a student of South East Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region and has written extensively on these subjects.