PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Cambodia on Tuesday disputed a U.S. claim that it has suspended or canceled international military cooperation programs with Washington in the wake of the country’s recent disputed election.
Lt. Gen. Nem Sowath, the senior officer in charge of political and foreign policy for the Defense Ministry, said Cambodia had neither suspended nor canceled participation in such programs. He said at a news conference that military activities were postponed by mutual agreement because Cambodia was not prepared.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Monday in Washington that Cambodia’s Defense Ministry had postponed or canceled a number of programs with the U.S. and other nations.
Such a move by Cambodia could pre-empt sanctions by Washington if it judged the July 28 polls unfair, or Cambodia a human rights abuser.
Prime Minister Hun Sen could strike a nationalistic pose if he chose to announce Cambodia’s unilateral suspension of cooperation, painting it as a response to unwanted interference by a big power.
The opposition is disputing the claim of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party to have won the election, capturing 68 seats in the National Assembly to 55 won by the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The final results were released Monday, but have not yet been ratified.
The opposition insists it will not recognize the results unless there is an independent, impartial investigation of alleged election irregularities, including the failure to properly register more than 1 million voters.
It has threatened to hold a massive public protest in the capital, Phnom Penh, if its demand is not met.
The government in turn has deployed extra troops and armored vehicles in the capital. The tough reputation of Hun Sen, who has ruled for 28 years, has raised concerns he might use force against any protests.
U.S. military assistance on maritime security, counterterrorism and humanitarian operations makes up a small portion of the more than $70 million in annual American aid to Cambodia but reflects Washington’s attempts to build bridges with a Southeast Asian government that counts China as its main benefactor.
Military cooperation has been on the uptick since 2006 and includes training for Cambodian officers and periodic military exercises. One of Hun Sen’s sons was trained at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Human Rights Watch has been pushing for the U.S. to sever military ties, arguing that Cambodia’s armed forces are corrupt, politicized and implicated in rights abuses.
Nem Sowath said the delay of carrying out cooperation programs was due to limited resources on Cambodia’s part, especially affecting its ability to take part in joint exercises. He said Cambodia still maintains good cooperation with the United States.
Hun Sen responded defiantly earlier this month after several U.S. lawmakers suggested cutting aid if the election was not free and fair. He noted that China had once stepped in to supply military trucks after Washington suspended their transfer, and said the Cambodian people themselves would fund the shortfall if the U.S. cut aid.
Additional reporting by Matthew Pennington in Washington.