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US Defense Secretary Vows Enhanced Ties

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US Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed a commitment to enhancing Cambodian peacekeeping, maritime security and counter-terrorism, following talks in Washington with Cambodian Defense Minister Gen. Tea Banh.

The two senior officials met on Monday in talks unprecedented since the 1970s, as military relations between the two countries have steadily improved.

“In the meeting we were talking about how what we have done so far has had very good success,” Tea Banh said in an interview in Washington after the meeting. “They will encourage us further to monitor closely what needs to be done in order to complete it.”

The US resumed military aid to Cambodia in 2006; it had revoked aid following the 1997 coup, when Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seized power from its government partner, Funcinpec.

“Since 2006, Cambodia has received approximately $4.5 million worth of equipment and technical assistance through the Foreign Military Financing program,” the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement.

The program funds grants of excess military transport equipment and technical assistance to the Ministry of Defense; training materials and technical assistance to the RCAF English Language Training Program; and maritime security and professional development training to the navy, the embassy said.

Cooperation with the US increased when Cambodia became a willing partner to the US’s post-9/11 war on terror, culminating in the establishment of military attachés this year.

“The United States is interested in providing scholarships for military students to study in other countries,” Tea Banh said, but he added that US assistance remains smaller than that of China.

The general also met with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who he said expressed concern over human rights and democracy.

“His concern is an issue that we are also taking care of and monitoring closely,” Tea Banh said. “I told him that I accept some matters that he raised with me. I told him that one country needs to have its own laws. As we watch closely, Cambodia has improved a lot, including in the respect of human rights.”

Cambodia’s rights record has come under pressure in recent months, following a string of lawsuits and at least one prison sentence against government dissenters, and earlier this month the US House of Representative’s Human Rights Commission called three public leaders from Cambodia to testify.