MILITARY ISSUES AND TERRORISM IN CAMBODIA

MILITARY IN CAMBODIA

In the 1990s, on paper, the Cambodian army had 145,000 members, but many of those were believed to be ghost soldiers from whom officers received extra pay. At that time the Cambodian army had an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 generals, and officers and non-commissioned officers far outnumbered privates. Many members of the army were Khmer Rouge defecters. For a long time it seemed as if the main purpose of the army was to feed and clothe these defectors and provide them with some money so they would take up arms against the government.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), the Military Police, and the National Police are responsible for providing security and maintaining law and order. According to to the Cambodian government: “They must be neutral, obedient, andself-restraint. They must sacrifice their lives to protect the Constitution ofthe Kingdom of Cambodia. They would bravely defense the national independence,sovereignty, and territorial integrity, to maintain peace, security, andstability, and to enforce law and order. They must end insurgency, terrorism,and secession. They must completely eradicate kidnapping, armed robbery, drugtrafficking, artifact smuggling, money laundering, and sexual exploitation ofminor children and women. They must properly enforce the law to make theirhomeland prosperous and safe for all, including diplomats, investors, tourists ,and foreign workers. They would participate in the national developmentprograms. They must be active in the rescue operation to save lives of thepeople from the natural causes. They ought to curtail the use of illegalweapons, and close down the arms black markets. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

In 1999, The Cambodian government announced plans to reduce the military from 148,000 to 93,000 people and the police force from 60,000 to 36,000 as the Khmer Rouge had been defeated. Many of the target figures were could be reduced simply be eliminating rolls of tens of thousands of ghost soldiers.

United States special forces have provided training to government forces in things like internal defense tactics, civic assistance planning, psychological operations, light infantry skills, "close quarters" urban combat techniques, tactical reconnaissance, and rapid maritime operations.

Cambodian Military, Child Soldiers, Weapons and Corruption

The Cambodian military has traditionally been seen more as a corrupt, money-making organization rather than professional defense force. In the 1990s it did a lot of business selling weapons to whoever wanted them, including terrorist groups and rebel insurgencies.

The military allegedly has neem involved in extortion and looting. Many Cambodian regard soldiers as criminals. A Western diplomat in Bangkok told the New York Times: "The Cambodian Army is poorly trained, poorly armed and many of the commanders are corrupt. What outside nations should do is help the honest leaders restore some order in the military, and give them the weapons and the training they need to do it."

The military is believed to be in control of much of the legal and illegal logging in Cambodia. When the military was put in charge of collecting logging revenues in the mid 1990, the government’s share went from $35 million a year to almost nothing,

Cambodia remains awash with weapons after decades of unrest and civil war. In April 2004, a stockpile of 233 Soviet-era antiaircraft missiles was blown up by Cambodian and U.S. explosive experts to keep them from falling into the hands of militants.

Child soldiers, including underage troops engaged in combat, have been used in Cambodia. Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, "Children, it turns out make good killers. They learn fast, they work cheap, and their sense of right and wrong has outgrown their yearning to be accepted by whatever liberation group or guerilla army that has become their surrogate family."

Cambodia Doubles Military Budget after Thai Clash

In October 2008, Reuters reported: “Impoverished Cambodia has doubled its 2009 military budget to $500 million (311 million pounds) following this month's border clash with Thailand, officials said, an increase that is likely to anger its donors. The National Assembly is expected to approve the new budget next week, with the military accounting for 25 percent of all spending, said Cheam Yeap, head of its finance commission. [Source: Reuters, October 29, 2008]

"This incident has awoken us to the need for our soldiers to be better equipped. We cannot sit and watch Thai troops encroach on our border," he told Reuters. "Our army needs to be more organised, better trained, with newer bases and well-fed troops."

At roughly 100,000 men, Cambodia's armed forces are a third the size of Thailand's, but remain very large for one of Asia's poorest nations. For years, international donors have been trying to get Phnom Penh to demobilise thousands of ageing soldiers, many of them former Khmer Rouge guerrillas, to free up more cash for investment in health and education. In the two weeks since the clash, local army units say they have recruited 3,000 men despite Prime Minister Hun Sen saying he wants a negotiated settlement with Bangkok to disputed stretches of border.

Rebels and Insurgents in Cambodia

American-Vietnamese based in the United States and camps in Cambodia have plotted to take over the Cambodian government. The groups are armed and have 200 members. Washington and Phnom Penh do not support the groups.

In November 2000, a group called the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), staged an inept and unsuccessful coup attempt in Phnom Penh. About 80 men—armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades and wearing orange headbands and Freedom Fighter T-shirts— stormed the Ministry of Defense in Phnom Penh.

The assault was the first stage of a coup attempt called Operation Volcano that had been masterminded by Yasith Chlun, a Cambodian-American accountant based in Long Beach California . The government had been tipped off about the attack. Soldiers waited behind the three foot wall at the ministry and opened fire on the rebels when they arrived shortly after midnight, and quickly subdued them. Some of the rebels were said to be drunk. The government said six attackers and one civilian were killed and 12 people were wounded.

The CFF operates out of a windowless office on Long beach. The group claims they have 500 members in the United States and thousands in Cambodia but there is little evidence to support the claim.

In June 2001, five men, including three U.S. citizens, were sentenced to life imprison, and jail terms were given to 25 others for their involvement in the attempted coup. The trial was described as Cambodia’s “biggest terror trial.” Two others were acquitted.

See Yasith Chhun, Relations with the United States

See Minorities and Vietnam

Terrorism and Cambodia

According the Cambodian Defense Ministry: Terrorist groups could chose Cambodian as a place for trafficking their resources. Border areas, both land and sea, could be the main targets for such infiltration.

A Cambodian Muslim with links to the terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah was arrested in June 2003. Around the same there was a crackdown on alleged Muslim militants that involved the closing down of a Saudi-funded Islamic school and deportation of the school’s teachers.

In October 2005, the Cambodia government admitted that the country was a supplier of weapons to Asian militant groups as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Muslim insurgents in the Philippines, and Karen rebels fighting the Myanmar regime.

Arrest and Trial of Suspected Muslim Insurgents in Cambodia

In May 2003, the Cambodian government said it had broken up and a terrorism network and arrested three men— an Egyptian and two Thais— that belonged to Jemaah Islamiyah, a group linked with Al-Qaeda and the Bali bombing. Another 50 men of African and Middle Eastern descent were deported.

In December 2004, Associated Press reported: “Asia's top terror suspect, Hambali, went on trial yesterday along with eight other alleged Muslim militants on charges of attempted murder in an alleged plot to bomb targets in Cambodia. Hambali -- an al-Qaeda linked leader in Southeast Asia -- and four other foreigners identified only as Rousha Yasser, Ibrahim, Zakariya and Zaid were being tried in absentia. But an Egyptian, two Thais and a Cambodian Muslim appeared at the municipal court. Prosecutor Yet Chakriya accused the nine suspects of "attempted premeditated murder with the goal of terrorism." He did not elaborate. The charge carries a sentence of life imprisonment. [Source: Associated Press, December 29, 2004]

Those present at the trial were Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali of Egypt, Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading of Thailand, and Cambodian Sman Ismael. They were arrested in May and June 2003 for alleged links with Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda's Southeast Asian arm. Cambodian police had broken up their Umm al-Qura group, which operated a Saudi-funded school outside Phnom Penh. The four were tried in February on an initial charge of terrorism. But a judge adjourned the proceedings and ordered a new probe after the suspects' attorney argued that Cambodia had no anti-terrorism law under which his clients could be prosecuted. The judge, Ya Sokhan, changed the charge to "attempted premeditated murder with the goal of terrorism." It was at that session that Hambali and four other foreign fugitives were mentioned as suspects facing the same charge.

Hambali, an Indonesian whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, is said to be a key leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. He reportedly spent several months in Cambodia in 2003. He also tried to use Cambodia as a base from which to launch regional terror attacks. He was arrested in Thailand in August 2003 and was taken by U.S. officials at an undisclosed location.

Prosecutors accused members of the Umm al-Qura group of using the school as a cover for training terrorists and planning attacks against Western interests in Cambodia, especially the US. Sman Ismael, the Cambodian Muslim, has maintained his innocence and said he was acquainted with the Umm al-Qura group only when he attended an Islamic religious seminar it organized in 2000.

Terrorist Attacks in Cambodia

In the early 2000s, three people were killed and seven were hurt when a series of explosions ripped through two hotels in Phnom Penh. The attacks took place after the owners of the hotels refused to give into $100,000 extortion demands.

Adam Piore wrote in Daily Beast: “On the evening of February 12, 1999, a man made his way through the potholed streets near Phnom Penh’s sprawling Russian Market, a ramshackle conglomeration of tin-and-plastic-sheeted stalls, propped by up by flimsy wooden beams and stretching an entire city block. It was the height of the dry season, when the temperature settled just above 80 degrees and stayed there, a nice night to sit in one of the many open-air coffee shops or karaoke bars, order a cold can of Angkor beer for half a U.S. dollar, and croon along with the latest hits from neighboring Thailand. The man approached an establishment popular with Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese population, filled with molded-plastic chairs clustered around cramped tables, and threw a grenade into the café. The explosion that followed sent furniture and people flying through the air. [Source: Adam Piore, Daily Beast, May 2, 2012 ::]

“The next morning the incident appeared in all the local newspapers—a remarkable fact given that violence in the war-numbed capital was hardly rare, and no one had died in the attack. It was not unheard of for veterans to commit random acts of aggression, especially if they’d consumed excessive amounts of rice whiskey and lost a competition for a favored prostitute. ::

“When two attackers lobbed another grenade into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh on March 3, this time killing one person and injuring 17, a Ministry of Interior official dismissed it as a revenge attack, unrelated to politics. It seemed a particularly plausible explanation that night because, in a separate incident, a 31-year-old man was shot in the head when he refused to hand over a karaoke microphone to five “would-be singers, suspected to be members of the military.” Two days later, a rickety wooden shack was attacked in a residential neighborhood. Later that week a videogame house and another karaoke bar were targeted.” ::

Cambodia Terror Trial Sentences Criticised

In February 2011, Alma Mistry of Radio Australia reported: “Cambodia's justice system is being criticised after three foreign nationals were sentenced to eight years in jail under anti-terrorism laws. In 2010, Cambodian police arrested three men who allegedly sent a letter to the Australian, British and American embassies in Phnom Penh, threatening a terrorist attack. Further investigation indicates the letter warned the embassies about four refugees from India and Burma, accusing them of links to Al Qaeda, and said they were planning an attack on the embassies. Six signatures - with first names only - ended the letter. [Source: Alma Mistry, Radio Australia, February 18, 2011]

In April 2010, police arrested and charged three of the supposed letter writers under anti-terrorism laws. They are two Bangladeshi nationals and a Nepalese man. All worked in the capital's small but busy South Asian restaurant scene. Experts say the case against the three relied only on the letter and no firm evidence linking the men to any crimes was produced. The men say they will appeal against the sentence, which has been questioned by the Bangladeshi embassy and experts who say it is inconsistent with universal principles of justice.

Journalist Adam Miller, who covered the story for the English-language daily Phnom Penh Post, told Radio Australia's Connect Asia program: “"A personal dispute in the South Asian restaurant scene... seems to have led to this letter being written, but there's no evidence linking them to anything.” Mr Miller said one man denied writing the letter. But police said a handwriting analysis matched two men's signatures to the letter and the name of the third was found on one of the other's mobile phones.

Judge Sin Visal, in his judgement said the letter was strong evidence. "He basically said that the letter alone was enough to prove that these guys had ties to terrorists and that they were convicted purely on that basis," Mr Miller said.

U.S. Expands Counterterrorism Assistance in Cambodia

In February 2008, the FBI opened an office in Phnom Penh headed by a Cambodia-American named Laro Tan. Explaining why the FBI opened an office there, FBI chief Robert Mueller said: Cambodia’s “an important country to us because of the potential for persons transiting Cambodia or utilizing Cambodia as a spot for terrorism.”

Craig Whitlock wrote in the Washington Post: “The Pentagon is expanding counterterrorism assistance to unlikely corners of the globe as part of a strategy to deploy elite Special Operations forces as advisers to countries far from al-Qaeda’s strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa. Much of the new assistance is being directed toward countries in Asia and has been fueled by the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to the region. In Cambodia, for example, the Defense Department is training a counterterrorism battalion even though the nation has not faced a serious militant threat in nearly a decade. The training has persisted despite concerns about the human rights record of Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler, former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen.[Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post November 15, 2012 **]

U.S. military leaders said they are eager to bolster relationships with countries across Asia, even those with checkered human rights records, but are careful to do so in a way that encourages reforms and does not ignore abuses.The assistance to Cambodia comes as the Pentagon, with little public notice, has deployed teams of Special Operations forces to train counterterrorism and special-warfare forces in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia, despite concerns about human rights abuses in those countries. The U.S. military resumed relations in 2010 with Indonesia’s special forces, a group accused of atrocities during the country’s years of authoritarianism.Cambodia is a special case because of its brutal history. It is scarred by the 1970s genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, a communist movement that killed one-fifth of the population. **

“In 2008, the U.S. government agreed to help Cambodia create a special unit to combat terrorism, saying it was worried that the country could become a refuge for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Five years earlier, the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Indonesia had spent several months hiding in Cambodia. About the same time, four other members of the group were charged with plotting to bomb the U.S. and British embassies in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Other than that, the threat from al-Qaeda affiliates has been virtually nonexistent in Cambodia. In its annual report this year highlighting terrorist activity around the world, the State Department listed no problems in the country. But the U.S. counterterrorism training has continued. **

“Officials with Human Rights Watch said they have warned the Pentagon for years that its vetting procedures for Cambodian military personnel are too weak. They also said the Defense Department has been naive about the unintended consequence of its training programs. “There’s almost this childlike faith that if these people are exposed to the U.S. military, it will invariably lead to a more professional military,” said Sophie Richardson, a Human Rights Watch researcher and Asia specialist. “There was almost no acknowledgment about how the U.S. could be helping to consolidate the power of highly abusive actors.” **

Why the U.S. Is Offering Counterterrorism Assistance to Cambodia

Craig Whitlock wrote in the Washington Post: “Although terrorism may not be high on the list of Cambodia’s problems, the Pentagon has other reasons to continue the training, said Carlyle A. Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asian militaries and a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. “This is a hook,” he said. “It’s something you don’t want to give up. It gives you access, it gives you influence.” Thayer said the counterterrorism unit also benefits the Cambodian prime minister. With his eldest son in charge, he can count on the force’s loyalty in the event of a coup attempt or other challenge to his rule. “Hun Sen is fearful that he’s got to control the guns and not have independent operators in the military that could threaten him,” Thayer said. [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post November 15, 2012 **]

“The training is overseen by a small U.S. Special Forces group, known as an augmentation team, based at the U.S. Embassy. U.S. military officials declined to answer questions about the size of the Cambodian counterterrorism force, how many people the United States has trained or how much it has spent on the program. “Cambodia decided to develop its own counter-terrorism unit,” Lt. Col. Brad Doboszenski, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, Pacific, said in a statement. “We support Cambodia in its development as a responsible regional partner.” **

Doboszenski discounted the fact that the Cambodian counterterrorism force is commanded by the prime minister’s son. He said that the augmentation team “is guided by U.S. policy objectives, not personal relationships.” Maj. Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the U.S. government vets the background of foreign military personnel who receive training. She said a closer relationship with Cambodia “helps to prevent these problems from reemerging.” **

“We have to make sure we’re not working with people who commit gross human rights violations, but we can’t turn our backs and not provide training,” she said. Wilkinson said the U.S. military also provides Cambodia with trainers for peacekeeping, maritime security and officer development. Brig. Gen. Navuth Koeut, the defense attache at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, declined to say how many soldiers are assigned to the counterterrorism unit. But he said it was “battalion-sized,” which would suggest at least a few hundred troops. He said that Cambodia values its growing relationship with the Pentagon and that the U.S. training has raised military standards and reinforced human rights. “They are very helpful for Cambodian soldiers to realize how to respect the rights of people,” he said. **

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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