Cambodia announced it will pay the tuition of six cadets at top American military universities, after the United States has ended support for studies by Cambodian Army personnel.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh told VOA Khmer in mid-June that Cambodia had curtailed long-running, military-to-military engagement between the countries up to such a point that the cadets were no longer eligible for scholarships by the end of this semester.
Two students study at the Military Academy West Point, two at the Air Force Academy, one at the Naval Academy, and one at the Coast Guard Academy, according to the students and an Embassy official. Some of them are due to graduate next year.
Five of the students had petitioned the U.S. Embassy in order to repeal the decision in four different letters, which were seen by VOA Khmer. They called the decision “shockingly bad news” and said they felt caught in the crossfire as the relationship between the two countries had become strained.
Tan Chanbopich, a senior cadet majoring in cyber security at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, said he highly valued the U.S. government scholarship and that taking it away during his studies was “incomprehensible to our poor souls.”
The students are selected directly by the US Embassy through a US State Department scholarship program and some have not yet entered the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces.
Following the news, Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense announced it would complete the funding so that the students could complete their studies, as the U.S. State Department had suggested.
Several students, who responded to VOA Khmer as a group, said that they were relieved to hear the Cambodian government had offered tuition support. One Air Force Academy student, Nou Chanyuthea, who had already raised $24,000 in donations through a gofundme.com webpage, said he would return these funds.
“I’m happy because this is my future and I wish to be a competent officer after graduation,” he told VOA Khmer.
Last week, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan played down the significance of the U.S. diplomatic decision towards the Cambodian military.
“I don't see any controversy or crisis between the Cambodian and the US militaries. It only lacks understanding of each other. Cambodia has already shown honesty to its stance and policy,” he said, adding that the U.S. gained little from depriving Cambodian youths a chance to study at its military academies.
Some members of Cambodia’s political elite graduated from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, including Hun Manet, the oldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is the current deputy commander and joint chief of staff of the Cambodian Army.
‘Serious concerns’ about Chinese military presence
The diplomatic downgrade by the U.S. is another setback in military relations between Cambodia, which have deteriorated in recent years as Cambodia has become increasingly dependent on China for diplomatic, military and economic support.
In early 2017, Cambodia unilaterally canceled annual military exercises with the US, while organizing large-scale drills together with the Chinese military not long afterward. After Cambodia slid into authoritarianism in the same year, banning the main opposition party and arresting its leader ahead of an election, the U.S. scaled down civilian and military aid.
In 2020, the U.S. military was told it was no longer welcome at Ream Naval Base, near Sihanoukville Port, and two U.S.-funded facilities there were torn down. Senior U.S. officials have pressed Cambodia for an explanation and access to the site.
Department of Defense spokesman John Supple told VOA Khmer last week, “The United States has serious concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s military presence and construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base,”
Construction of a Chinese military base, he added, would undermine Cambodia’s “sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations.”
Cambodia has repeatedly denied that any Chinese or foreign troops will be allowed to be stationed in the country, except for joint training and port visits.