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Interview: Senior Pentagon Official Visits Cambodia, Talks Phnom Penh Ties, Indo-Pacific Strategy
19 January 2019
“Bilateral defense ties have undergone drastic setbacks over the past few years amid Cambodia’s growing closer security ties with China and political tensions surrounding Cambodia’s general elections last year.”PHNOM PENH —
[Editor’s Note: U.S. Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H. Felter visited Cambodia this week to discuss the restoration of military cooperation with Cambodia. Bilateral defense ties have undergone drastic setbacks over the past few years amid Cambodia’s growing closer security ties with China and political tensions surrounding Cambodia’s general elections last year. The senior Pentagon official sat down in Phnom Penh on Wednesday with VOA Khmer to discuss defense ties with Cambodia and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at dealing with China’s growing influence in the region.]
VOA: Can you tell us about this trip of yours to Cambodia?
Felter: That was special because this is my first trip to Cambodia in this capacity as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. It was also the first time we had a senior-level defense talk in quite some time in Cambodia – defense dialogue which took place on Tuesday hosted by Gen. Neang Phat [Ministry of Defense secretary of state].
VOA: Who did you meet on the Cambodian side and what issues did you discuss?
Felter: On Tuesday I met with Gen. Neang Phat. He was hosting with his senior members from his staff from the Ministry of Defense and the Cambodian military. Just today, we visited Ream Naval Base and met with Vice Admiral Ouk Seiha, commander of the base, and his staff.
VOA: Can you tell us what issues you raised with Cambodian officials?
Felter: Gen. Neang Phat is the secretary of state of the Ministry of National Defense. As part of the Defense Policy Dialogue, we discussed a range of issues like regional and international security, multilateral and bilateral cooperation. What I thought to be the most important part of our discussion on Tuesday with the Defense Policy Dialogue was mapping out a way forward to improve and enhance military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Cambodia to identify a way we can improve our defense ties and military cooperation.
VOA: We have seen many joint activities have been canceled due to the political situation in Cambodia. Have you brought this into discussions with Cambodian officials to find ways to restart them?
Felter: Yes, we have restarted on some levels. Encouragingly, Cambodia agreed to restart our POW/MIA [Prisoner of War/Missing in Action] cooperation and we find this very encouraging. Later this month we will have a joint on-field activity where we actually go out and do recovery operations of two missing pilots that we are searching for. So we find this very encouraging. Following this, we will be able to enhance our existing state partnership program. This is the partnership program with the Eisenhower National Guard that we will be sending many subject experts here to help the Cambodian military develop their peace-keeping skills. We know that Cambodia will participate in peace-keeping operations and missions around the world so we look forward to that. And there is a way forward beyond that. We will identify a number of activities that we can do to build on this military-to-military cooperation and enhance defense relationship. But to go down that path, we were clear in our discussion on Tuesday with Gen. Neang Phat that a number of things will have to happen on the Cambodian side that has to take initiative in areas of promoting national reconciliation, opening space for civil society and media. Some specific areas down that path include improving bilateral and multilateral exercises, restarting joint combined exchange training which we did in the past, the naval exercise CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training). Angkor Sentinel is another example.
VOA: Your call for release the of Kem Sokha, the opposition leader, is met with a negative response from Cambodian officials. What do you think about that?
FOR RELEASE: Congressmen Lowenthal and Chabot Call On Secretary Of State Tillerson To Ensure Free And Fair Cambodian Elections
- Could Hun Sen achieve his attempts to stifle opposition party CNRP by dissolving this party through new law amendment proposal on political party, or his unrivalled attempts to undermine the National Election Committee (NEC)?
- Could anyone understand that the latest Machiavellian style Hun Sen has been materializing is a sign to call for a mediation for power sharing?
In a letter, the Congressmen state that the U.S. State Department can play a critical role by communicating to the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen the importance of holding elections deemed credible by the international community.
The Congressmen also highlight the passage by the House last year of their resolution, H.Res.728, which established the House’s official support for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Cambodia. The resolution noted numerous instances of opposition party members in Cambodia being harassed by the country’s long-ruling regime, as well as widespread reports of irregularities in the 2013 national elections which resulted in the Hun Sen regime narrowly maintaining its hold on power.
The letter details recent acts of political oppression by the Hun Sen government, including the politically-motivated criminal investigations and charges against the senior officials of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Sam Rainsy, head of the CNRP, was forced to leave Cambodia and is forbidden from returning, while CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha was kept under virtual house arrest for months within the party’s headquarters. There have also been recent reports that the Hun Sen government is pursuing a legislative proposal that would effectively dissolve the opposition party.
The letter closes by emphasizing that, “In order to foster a political environment where this is possible, the Cambodian government must immediately drop all politically-motivated charges against opposition leaders, cease harassment of the CNRP, allow Sam Rainsy to freely return to the country, and allow independent election observers at all polling places.”
Congressman Alan Lowenthal represents the cities of Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill, Avalon, Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, Cypress, Westminster, Garden Grove, Buena Park, Anaheim, Midway City and Stanton in California’s 47th Congressional District. He can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, or his website.
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