US sanctions Cambodian officials over alleged corruption at Ream Naval Base

·3-min read

The US government on Wednesday sanctioned Cambodian officials for alleged graft at the Southeast Asian nation’s largest naval base, where the demolition of structures funded by Washington has drawn criticism from US officials concerned about China’s access to the facility.

Chau Phirun, director general of the defence ministry’s material and technical services department, “conspired to profit from activities regarding the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities”, the US Treasury Department said.

Chau Phirun, Royal Cambodian Navy Commander Tea Vinh and other government officials “likely conspired to inflate the cost of facilities at [the base] and personally benefit from the proceeds”, it added.

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The new sanctions, which will bar the two and immediate family members from entering the US, are authorised by a clause in the US government’s appropriations law that targets officials of foreign governments who “have been involved, directly or indirectly, in significant corruption, including corruption related to the extraction of natural resources, or a gross violation of human rights”.

Cambodian soldiers stand at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia in July 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE
Cambodian soldiers stand at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia in July 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE

The US Treasury Department will freeze any assets held by the two officials and their immediate family members under the authority of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which has been invoked against Chinese government officials and organisations accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The move escalates a point of friction between the US and Cambodia that recently came into sharper focus. US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman raised “serious concerns” during a trip to the country in June about a Chinese military presence and construction of facilities at the Ream base, according to the department.

Defence Minister Tea Banh said China was helping to build infrastructure with “no strings attached”. A week later, a US defence attaché was refused full access during a visit to the base, further rankling Washington.

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US concerns over the Ream base rose again last month after Washington think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies released satellite images showing what it said were new structures, including three new buildings and a road.

The report by the think tank’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative also said other areas at the base had been cleared, potentially for more construction. It said the purpose of the construction was unclear and there were “concerns that the new facilities are being built to facilitate a Chinese military presence in Cambodia”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China opposed unilateral sanctions on Cambodian officials.

“China has long opposed the US imposing unilateral sanctions and operating long-arm jurisdiction, and opposes the US grossly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations,” Wang told a press conference on Thursday.

“As traditional friendly neighbours, China and Cambodia cooperate in various areas,” he said. “The equal and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Cambodia does not allow interference by foreign forces”.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

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