FILE - Cambodia's National Defense Minister Tea Banh.
FILE - Cambodia's National Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Cambodia’s government has decided to suspend its two-week military exercise with China next month, citing a need to cut spending amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite claims by the opposition that it did so to avoid angering the new administration in Washington.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service last week, Defense Minister Tea Banh said the fourth annual “Golden Dragon” exercise will be canceled this year due to heavy flooding in 2020 that devastated the country’s infrastructure and food supply. He also pointed to the country’s ongoing battle with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and “several other problems” the government still needs to resolve.

The joint exercise, originally scheduled for March 13-27, sees around 3,000 Cambodian and Chinese troops take part in live ammunition drills—including training on the use of tanks, armored vehicles, and demining equipment—at the 70th Brigade Military Training School in Kampot province’s Chum Kiri district. Ties between the two countries have strengthened in recent years amid growing Western criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record.

“We are dealing with these difficulties. [The flooding] severely affected the well-being and livelihood of the people and is expected to result in more poverty and hardship,” Tea Banh said. “So, based on this, we have suspended the military exercise.”

In October last year, tropical storms brought torrential rains that inundated much of Cambodia, triggering flooding that destroyed bridges and roads, affected hundreds of thousands of people in 19 provinces, and left nearly 40 dead.

Cambodia, to which China has pledged to deliver 1 million doses of its Sinopharm vaccination, has seen a total of 476 COVID-19 cases since January 2020 and no deaths. The drills were held last year despite widespread concerns about potentially infected Chinese soldiers bringing the virus into the country—concerns that were dismissed at the time by Tea Banh.

This week, social development researcher Seng Sary told RFA that Cambodia’s decision to suspend the Golden Dragon exercise was “long overdue” because the nation is not involved in any conflicts.

“Exercises are part of strengthening the capacity of the military, but at this stage it is good that we are suspending them due to national budget constraints,” he said.

US-Cambodia relations

However, Eng Chhai Eang, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party dismissed Tea Banh’s claims, saying that in previous years, “all the expenses for military exercises were paid by China.”

Speaking to RFA from self-imposed exile, he said he believes that the exercises were suspended this year because U.S. President Joe Biden has just taken office and Cambodia needs to appear more neutral, rather than titling towards China, before Washington’s foreign policy approach becomes clearer.

“[Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s government has suspended the Golden Dragon exercise, not because of COVID-19, but more a matter of foreign policy,” he said.

FILE - A man cleans a skull near a mass grave at the Chaung Ek torture camp run by the Khmer Rouge in this undated photo. The last surviving leaders of the communist Khmer Rouge regime were convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crime
US, China Face Off Over Legacy in Cambodia
Almost half a century ago, the U.S.-backed Gen. Lon Nol led a coup in March 1970, overthrowing Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk while the monarch visited Moscow.Sihanouk took refuge in Beijing until 1975, when brutal Khmer Rouge guerrillas leading a resistance movement against Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic captured Phnom Penh on April 17 and took over the country.Sihanouk initially supported the Khmer Rouge regime and was installed as head of state by the communists but resigned in 1976.

Cambodia has grown isolated from Western aid donors and trade partners since its Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win all seats in a 2018 election seen as unfree and unfair.

After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with Association of Southeast Asian Nations nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodia in the form of real estate, agriculture and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.

Despite the suspension of military exercises, China has continued to provide military assistance to Cambodia, which observers fear is more likely to be used by Hun Sen to solidify his own hold on power than to benefit the nation.

Chinese vaccine

On Wednesday, Cambodia began to roll out its vaccination program using the 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine delivered to the country by China on February 7, despite concerns by members of the public who noted that the injection has yet to be endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a handover ceremony at Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 7, 2021.

Hun Sen posted a comment on Facebook thanking Beijing for the donation and urging Cambodians to disregard the vaccine’s origin.

“Finally, Cambodia obtained vaccines for Cambodians—this is because of China and Cambodia’s solid as steel relationship,” he wrote.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Chinese state, military, and people—especially President Xi Jinping—who provided this aid to Cambodian people.”

Hun Sen’s comments came after his sons Hun Manet and Hun Manit, their wives, and his son-in-law Sok Puthivuth received Sinopharm vaccinations. His son Hun Many and son-in-law Dy Vichea did not receive injections based on a Ministry of Health statement that people with health conditions should not be given the Sinopharm vaccine.

Additionally, top officials, ministers, secretaries of state, deputy secretaries and provincial governors, as well as many senior officers were also vaccinated Wednesday at five separate sites around the country.

Hun Sen did not get vaccinated, claiming that it was “inappropriate” at his age of 68.

On Facebook, the prime minister dismissed concerns about the source of the vaccine.

“I would like to send a message to compatriots inside and outside of the country: Please don’t worry which country the vaccine is coming from or what brand it is,” he said.

“We should be happy that we have a vaccine because it is not sold like fish in the markets,” he added, noting that many people living in developed nations have yet to receive an inoculation.

Public concerns

On Tuesday, a member of the Cambodian Association of Independent Civil Servants, who asked not to be named, told RFA that some civil servants are reluctant to receive the Sinopharm vaccine because it has yet to be recognized by global experts, including the WHO.

Similarly, Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Association of Informal Economy, said that the country’s poor are afraid of the vaccine and suggested that Cambodia has the luxury of waiting for a better-quality injection because the country hasn’t been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus to date.

“Our situation does not seem to involve as many deaths as some neighboring countries, so I think we should wait for endorsement from the WHO before we begin injecting people,” he said.

Um Sam An, former CNRP lawmaker for Siem Reap province, called Hun Sen’s comments “dangerous.”

“Hun Sen doesn’t care about the well-being and the lives of the Cambodian people. Instead, he provided Cambodians as a case study for Chinese vaccines,” he said.

Secretary general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students, Kien Ponlok, said Hun Sen should be “more responsible,” suggesting the prime minister is more eager to please China than help his own country.

Yong Kim Eng, executive director of the People's Center for Development and Peace, called on the government to provide information about the types of vaccines that are given to the people for the sake of transparency.

Another 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine will be delivered by China at a later date and Hun Sen has said he expects Beijing to deliver more than 1 million doses in total.