The Cambodian government has criticized the US for discussing human rights and democracy with military officials, officials have said.
The comments came after US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter urged Cambodia to drop treason charges against the former opposition leader, Kem Sokha, during a meeting with Cambodian military officials last week.
“We cannot accept it that a US military representative came here to talk with the Cambodian military on political issues,” government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer. “This is confusion. It reminds Cambodia of its past when a revolution in the 1970s was supported by the US military. We don’t want to fall into a similar situation like that. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are not a political institution, but they are under the control of the prime minister.”
Felter paid a two-day visit to Cambodia to look for ways to improve the military-to-military relationship with the Southeast Asian nation.
Cambodian authorities oversaw a crackdown on Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, arrested Sokha and charged him with colluding with the US to topple the government.
“The charges against him [Sokha] were directly related to conspiring with the US. And they’re just false,” said Felter in an interview with VOA Khmer. “I think that would be a nice gesture on Cambodia’s part to drop those charges, and I think that would be one example of an area that would help us move down that path that I just described towards improving our military relationship and increasing military-to-military cooperation.”
Sokha is currently under house arrest and is banned from contacting party officials. The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in late 2017 and banned 118 officials from politics for five years.
The general elections in July last year saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party win all 125 seats. The results were not endorsed by Western powers, but China has backed Hun Sen’s actions.
The US has repeatedly expressed its concern over the deteriorating relationship, fearing China would use Cambodia as its military base or facility.
“We respect Cambodia’s sovereignty,” said Felter. “We respect them as a sovereign country that they make sovereign decisions, and we hope that continues. We hope no other nation can interfere in Cambodia’s sovereignty and influence them in terms of decisions.”
Siphan said China is simply a development and strategic partner.
“We’ve told friendly countries around the world that we’re not a Chinese slave and we are not stupid to let China set up a military base here. If we do so, it means we’re committing suicide. We understand this clearly.”