Skip to main content

(New York) – US military training to Cambodia’s abusive armed forces could easily be misused against the political opposition and labor unions and may violate US law. The US military support was evident in official publicity material and personal pages posted on Facebook during the annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises conducted from April 21 to 30, 2014.

“It’s shocking that the US military is providing armed soldiers training in kicking down doors soon after Cambodian armed forces killed protesting workers in Phnom Penh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While the ‘enemy’ the US is training Cambodia to defend against isn’t stated, these forces of late have only been used against opposition protesters and striking factory workers.”

US military forces have provided training that would assist Cambodia’s military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said. This includes expanded military coordination with local political authorities and the police and a situational exercise centered on “security techniques in an urban environment.” A Cambodian military video featuring the seizure of a building shows troops advancing with assault rifles and kicking down an imaginary door to enter the building while US officers supervise the exercises. A photograph on the official Angkor Sentinel Facebook page, under the caption “vehicle search technique in an urban environment” shows a Cambodian soldier stopping a vehicle by standing in front of it with his assault rifle aimed at the windshield.


These and other training exercises may violate US congressional funding requirements for military training and other forms of security assistance that specifically prohibit assistance to Cambodia except in limited areas of “global health, food security, humanitarian demining programs, human rights training for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, or to enhance maritime security capabilities.” Video images show practice planning for what appears to be mountain fighting, while stills from Facebook pages depict what seem to be lowland counterinsurgency scenarios. The US Congress imposed the restrictions because of the Cambodian government’s notorious rights record. A Senate report accompanying the legislation said that assistance was restricted because of “concern with the political situation in Cambodia and the lack of political will by the Government of Cambodia to further democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

The training during Angkor Sentinel 2014 also appears contrary to the Obama administration’s security assistance policy, Human Rights Watch said. An April 2013 White House Presidential Police Directive states that one of the four “principal goals” of US security sector assistance is to “[p]romote universal values, such as good governance, transparent and accountable oversight of security forces, rule of law, transparency, accountability, delivery of fair and effective justice, and respect for human rights.”

US forces’ providing direct military training to security forces that have been repeatedly deployed to suppress peaceful expression and have engaged in human rights abuses is inconsistent with that policy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Congress made clear in its last budget bill that it didn't want training like this for Cambodia,” Adams said. “The Pentagon needs to explain why it circumvented Congress and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Angkor Sentinel
Annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises, which began in 2010, have become the “U.S. Army Pacific's capstone Security Cooperation event with Cambodia.” The exercises are in addition to routine US assistance in English-language instruction, de-mining, bridge and school construction, and medical assistance.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) includes the Cambodian army, air force, navy and the gendarmerie. The gendarmerie performs police functions vis-à-vis both Cambodia’s civilian population and military personnel and is armed with military weaponry.

The RCAF and the US military made plans for Angkor Sentinel 2014 during meetings near Phnom Penh on December 11-13, 2013, opened by a deputy Cambodian army commander and a US officer identified by official Cambodian television as “the chief of the U.S. Army bureau of cooperative operations on duty in Cambodia.” According to a broadcast on Cambodian state-run television, a Cambodian commander said the “combat exercise” would “strengthen and heighten” Cambodian army personnel competences.

US Brig. Gen. John Goodale and RCAF Lt. Gen. Hun Maneth, the West Point-trained son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, presided over the Angkor Sentinel 2014 opening ceremony. Maneth is simultaneously Vice Chairman of the RCAF Joint General Staff, Deputy Commander of the Army, and Commander of Cambodia’s Counter-Terrorism Unit. He has been promoted repeatedly despite his relative inexperience and appears to be being groomed by Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985, as a successor.

In an official blog on the 2014 event, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd, who is frequently critical of the Cambodian government, including about its conduct of the July 2013 national elections, said that it was intended “to hone [RCAF’s] humanitarian assistance and disaster relief skills for use in the event of a natural disaster or other type of humanitarian crisis,” and thereby also “contribute to a coordinated response to regional emergencies” in Southeast Asia. A US Embassy press release added thatover 470 US and Cambodian personnel were to participate in the exercises, specifying that they were to be “in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities” and to prepare Cambodian troops for United Nations peacekeeping missions. The key US unit involved was the Idaho Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, which has been involved in every annual exercise.

Angkor Sentinel 2014 comprised four courses: medicaltraining, a command post exercise, a situational training exercise, and instructions about how to counter improvised explosive devices. A US military video of the Command Post Exercise explains that it is intended to familiarize the Cambodian military with US “military decision making process” so that they can deal not only with natural disasters, but also “other activities they have locally,” as well as assignments given to them as parts of UN missions abroad.

At the time of Angkor Sentinel’s first event, in 2010, the US said the training emphasized international “peacekeeping challenges such as insurgency, terrorism, crime and ethnic conflict,” but was also designed to effect “institutional reform” of the RCAF.

Speaking in February 2011, the then-US principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, Derek Mitchell, said that US training was intended to develop RCAF into “a professional force, while encouraging Cambodia to continue on a path of improved transparency, governance, commitment to the rule of law, sustained democratic development and respect for human rights.” He expressed the hope that the Cambodian military was embarking on “notable institutional reforms” that had the potential to create a force that respected human rights.

Pentagon officials have told Human Rights Watch in the past that all training with Cambodia military units stresses human rights standards and that one of the goals of training is to introduce a new generation of officers to military techniques and a sense of professionalism that, US officials say, the officers will seek to emulate.

Because of the Cambodian military’s entrenched politicization and corruption, there is little hope that such training efforts can succeed in bringing about a more professional and rights-respecting armed force, Human Rights Watch said. All of RCAF’s senior-most military officers sit on the central committee of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The commander-in-chief sits on the smaller and more powerful standing committee.

“If the US military is going to engage with Cambodia's notoriously abusive, corrupt, and politicized military, it has to limit assistance only to the most necessary humanitarian operations,” Adams said. “There are not a lot of good options, but the programs chosen for Angkor Sentinel are not among them.”

In Phnom Penh and other municipalities, provinces, and districts throughout Cambodia, civilian governors or a designated deputy governor head “unified command committees” that since the 1980s have been legally empowered to exercise command authority over “mixed forces” of security units, which now can include army, gendarmes, police, and public order para-police. This is part of a system that has for decades ensured that Cambodia’s security forces are politically highly partisan in favor of the CPP. The governors or deputy governors chairing these committees are all leading CPP members in the areas they administer.

Since the fundamentally flawed July 2013 national elections, which the United States has strongly criticized, unified command committees have constantly overseen or coordinated with attempts by the army, gendarmerie, and police to prevent or suppress attempts by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and trade unions to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and expression. These security force operations, conducted almost entirely in Phnom Penh and other urban areas, have repeatedly involved use of excessive force, including unnecessary lethal force resulting in at least seven deaths and dozens of injuries. Security forces have carried out brutal beatings of protesters, including one case in which a worker died on May 17, 2014.

Cambodian Forces Arresting Critics, Blocking Strikes, Quashing Protests
Army and gendarmerie forces have also carried out arrests of dozens of demonstrators, protesters, and people allegedly involved in social unrest, including human rights defenders and others who had committed no recognizably criminal offence, but who have since been imprisoned in unfair trials. Twenty-five people arrested since November 2013, including some taken into custody and beaten by gendarmes who stormed buildings on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on January 2-3, 2014, are currently on trial in politically-controlled courts.

Mixed Phnom Penh security forces including gendarmes are currently seeking to enforce a government ban in violation of international law on peaceful gatherings by the CNRP and civil society groups. These forces have occupied the area the government previously designated for such gatherings as “Democracy Plaza” in central Phnom Penh. Most recently, on May 16, they established a “forward defense perimeter” around the plaza to prevent any intrusion by participants in a CNRP election campaign march.

Since September 2013, various unified command committees in and around Phnom Penh have also repeatedly overseen the establishment of roadblocks, ostensibly to check vehicles traveling on access routes to the capital for hidden explosive devices, a practice that has continued this May 2014. Human Rights Watch’s observation of such operations and consistent reports by other human rights observers, the CNRP, and trade union activists make it clear that such operations have been used to harass and obstruct movement of people the security forces identify as likely to participate in demonstrations or strikes.

In addition, on February 20, Hun Sen expanded an existing civil-military-police “Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations at All Targets,” the objective of which is to deal with such worker assemblies, adding numerous high-level officials to the committee’s membership. These included the Phnom Penh governor, the RCAF Supreme Commander, the National Gendarmerie Commander, and various deputy army commanders, including Hun Maneth. One committee member explained that, “The government reshuffled and created the new committee because they wanted to strengthen their work and take action against protesters.” A security force source told Human Rights Watch that this body liaises with the Phnom Penh Unified Command Committee and stands by to assist it, when deemed necessary, in planning operations to break up any strikes the government deems illegal.

While neither the Cambodian nor US governments have made public the units from which RCAF trainees were drawn, Facebook video and still images provide indications. As noted above, men wearing gendarme insignia appear in these images. A Cambodian military video of the closing ceremony includes footage of a Cambodian officer in a red beret, which are normally worn only by personnel of Army Paratrooper Special Forces Brigade 911. Brigade 911, which reports directly to the Army Command, violently broke up a January 2014 worker gathering at a factory near the unit’s base, and arrested human rights defenders who tried to defuse the situation. Personnel from the army armor unit also participated in the exercises, according to the Facebook page of a tank commander.

“The Cambodian army and gendarmerie continue to repress political opponents and protesters, most recently in the killings and beatings of labor activists and the violent break-up of opposition political rallies,” Adams said. “While training Cambodia’s security forces in disaster relief seems laudable, the Pentagon’s approach to this training has been anything but. The Angkor Sentinel exercises should be scrapped so long as the Cambodian government uses its armed forces to target opponents and fails to hold abusive personnel to account.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.