PHNOM PENH — As a top U.S. diplomat visited Phnom Penh on Friday, an angry Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Cambodia’s armed forces to recall or destroy American-made weapons and equipment in response to a recent arms embargo imposed by Washington.
The U.S. on Wednesday announced an arms embargo on Cambodia to “address human rights abuses and corruption by Cambodian government actors, including the military, as well as the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China’s military in Cambodia.”
Hun Sen responded on Facebook on Friday, posting two photos of himself and former U.S. President Donald Trump during an ASEAN gala in the Philippines in 2017, along with a message mocking the U.S. measures.
“I would like to thank the U.S. for helping confirm my decision not to buy American weapons is a correct choice for Cambodian's national defense policies,” the prime minister wrote, adding the embargo served as a reminder for future governments about the risk of relying on the U.S.
“At the same time, I'd like to issue an order to all armed forces to re-inspect all weapons and military equipment currently in Cambodia's possession that you must collect all American-made ones either back to the warehouses or to be destroyed," he wrote.
Hun Sen’s comment came while U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet was in Phnom Penh to discuss bilateral ties and Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN starting next month.
In a media roundtable, Chollet declined to specifically respond to Hun Sen’s remarks, but suggested the Cambodian government was sanctioned in part for its lack of transparency surrounding its military ties with China and the Ream Naval Base in particular.
After razing at least two U.S.-built facilities, Cambodia said it was accepting Chinese assistance to expand the base on the Gulf of Thailand, but has sought allay U.S. fears that the overhaul could pave the way for permanent Chinese military presence in the country.
“We believe it's important for them to be fully transparent about the intent and the nature of that relationship, the scope of it as well, including what's going on” Chollet said.
“Unfortunately, we've not seen the kind of progress we would have hoped for,” he added, “which is why the United States has announced several measures in response to make clear that we think that there's a threat not just to our interest, but also to the region, we would say, and to Cambodian interest if there's a deeper PRC-Cambodian military relationship.”
In early November, the U.S. Treasury invoked the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction two Cambodian generals, including Navy Chief Adm. Tea Vinh, for alleged involvement in embezzling funds used in the naval base expansion project.
Several state-aligned mouthpieces ran a number of stories denouncing the U.S. war legacy in Cambodia on Friday. One of the reports interviewed locals in southeaster Svay Rieng province about how American bombing in the 1970s — and the unexploded ordinances left behind — continues to affect their lives.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday called the U.S. arms embargo on Cambodia as “hegemonic and bullying practice,” reiterating its support for Phnom Penh.
While in Phnom Penh, Chollet met Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office aide Kao Kim Hourn, who is tipped to be next Cambodia-appointed ASEAN Secretary-General next year. Chollet said he heard in “great detail” of Cambodia’s “ambitious” as ASEAN chair next year.
“One of the frustrating things is we feel like these issues that come up and these differences stand in the way of us reaching our full potential as partners,” the counselor said, adding that it was important for the country to “talk openly about areas where we may disagree” but “stay focused on the future and areas where we can agree.”
The Counselor also suggested Cambodia, which recently made an unpopular outreach to the military junta in Myanmar, should carefully engage with the regime. Hun Sen announced on Monday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing would be invited to future ASEAN leadership meetings despite pressure to isolate the regime.
“The US is not against engagement. For engagement's sake, we still have an embassy in Myanmar,” Chollet said.
“We're quite clear that the engagement needs to have a purpose that can't come for free, and we want to see genuine progress on the ground,” he added.
“We would expect any engagement forthcoming that it actually brings results and it's not just something that is a concession to the junta.”