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U.S military attache visit Ream Naval Base but says Cambodian military did not allow full access

A naval officer walks near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organized by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A naval officer walks near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organized by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The United States military attaché on Friday visited Ream Naval Base, where they have raised questions about Chinese military presence, but said the Cambodian military did not grant the official a full inspection — a charge the Cambodian government denied.

The visit came after US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman met with Prime Minister Hun Sen early this month, and expressed concern over Chinese military presence and ongoing construction and demolition activities at the Preah Sihanouk province naval base. The government, in turn, said the US could inspect the base and invited the embassy defense attaché, Colonel Marcus M. Ferrara, to tour Ream on Friday.

A statement issued by the embassy said Ferrara was denied full access and urged Cambodian military officials to reschedule a full visit as soon as possible.

“During the brief visit, Cambodian military officials refused to allow the Defense Attache full access to the Naval base,” read the statement.

“When it became clear he would not be granted adequate access, Col, Ferrara ended the tour and requested Cambodian military officials reschedule the visit with full access at the earliest opportunity,”

The statement said that routine and frequent visits to Ream Naval Base by US and other foreign military representatives can be “an important step towards greater transparency and mutual trust.”

Ream Naval Base spokesman Rear Admiral Mey Dina said the US had been ill-intentioned in its accusations of Chinese military support and denied that the Cambodian military didn’t allow full access to the US representative.

“It is not true because the naval base is very small, and with just a quick look we can see all,” he said. “They have already visited all [of the base] this morning,”

“They have just raised the issue because they have intentions to accuse Cambodia,” Dina added.

Defense minister Tea Banh could not be reached for comment, nor could vice admiral Tea Sokha, a spokesman for Cambodian navy. The government has repeatedly said that China has only provided construction support.

“Cambodia has just received [assistance] from China as an ironclad friend in the construction of a larger and more modern Ream port,” Banh told Freshnews last week. “After the construction, Cambodia is the user of this modern port, without handing it over to China as alleged by the United States.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the Cambodian military has the right not to allow inspections of any areas that could compromise national security or independent territorial sovereignty.

“Military zones in each country, they would not allow us a full inspection like watching a film from beginning to end,” he said.

“If there is an impact to Cambodia’s national security, we won’t allow them to see,” Siphan said. He added that the US is not a policeman that has the right to see everything, especially as Cambodia has never requested a US military presence, as in other countries.

“The accusation is just the pretext politics of the United States,” he said, adding that the government has already explained that construction is happening to modernize Ream and that Cambodia welcomes all countries that wish to support its efforts to develop or construct its base.

Em Sovanna, a political analyst, said that the relations between Cambodia-United States remain rocky after the curtailed visit. But he said that “Cambodia has the right to keep its secret information regarding the national security issue.” He said it would be better if the US could be more precise in its requests to see certain areas.

“In my opinion, the United States remains suspicious while they can’t have full access for inspection at Ream Naval Base,” he said. “So, the relations between both countries are still not progressing.”

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