Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered armed forces to collect all U.S.-made military weaponry found in the country and “demolish” or keep them in warehouses, after the United States imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia over Chinese military influence there.
The State Department announced the embargo on Dec. 8, citing concerns over corruption and human rights abuses in Cambodia, as well as “deepening Chinese military influence”.
The aim of the embargo, which amends the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), is to ensure that “defense articles and defense services” that were set to be imported or exported by Cambodia are not done so without prior review and approval by the U.S. government.
Hun Sen hit out at the United States for the move, saying it’s “a warning message” from the U.S. to the next generation of Cambodians not to use U.S.-made weapons if they want to protect the country’s independence.
“I’d like to order all armed forces to make an urgent review of weapons and military equipment that Cambodia is using and to collect all U.S. military weapons and materials, if found, store them in warehouses or demolish,” Hun Sen wrote on Facebook on Dec. 10.
Hun Sen claimed that most countries that used U.S.-made weapons have lost wars, citing U.S.-backed Cambodian General Lon Nol, who was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the more recent collapse of the Afghanistan government.
“My decision not to buy weapons from the United States is absolutely correct for Cambodia’s national defense,” he remarked.
Hun Sen’s remarks came on the same day as counselor of the U.S. Department of State Derek Chollet met with members of Cambodian civil society for talks on human rights, the environment, labor conditions, and press freedom in Cambodia.
In a tweet, Chollet emphasized that “promoting respect for human rights is central to U.S. foreign policy in Cambodia and around the world.”
Deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson also urged Chollet to demand Hun Sen “end the rapidly expanding crackdown on political opponents” that had led to “widespread arrests, mass show trials, [and] aggressive pursuit of recognized refugees overseas.”
Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department levied sanctions against two senior members of the Cambodian Ministry of National Defense, Chau Phirun and Tea Vinh, for corruption.
The treasury in a statement alleged that in 2020 and 2021, Chau Phirun conspired with Tea Vinh and other Cambodian officials to inflate costs of a construction and updating project at Ream Naval Base facilities, and then planned to use the funds skimmed from the project for their own benefit.
U.S. officials are concerned that construction at the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville will be used to facilitate a Chinese military presence in Cambodia.
Katabella Roberts contributed to this report.