PHNOM PENH – Cambodia on Thursday dismissed as “politically motivated” sanctions imposed by the United States on two senior defense officials over allegations of graft, accompanied by a broader warning of systemic corruption in the Southeast Asian nation.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia had not been told in advance about the sanctions, which are related to construction financing at the Ream Naval Base — a project that has raised U.S. concerns over China's involvement. He said Cambodia did not intend to respond to Washington.
“The sanctions imposed by the U.S. government were made unilaterally and their decision was not based on the rule of law — it is an injustice for Cambodia,” he told The Associated Press.
“These sanctions were politically motivated, and it is not the position of Cambodia to talk with the U.S. on this matter," he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh would not comment on whether Cambodia had been in contact regarding the sanctions but said that the move would not have come as a surprise.
“U.S. officials have regularly raised concerns with Cambodia's officials about systemic corruption, transnational organized crime and human rights abuses,” embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier said.
“Regrettably there have been no meaningful changes,” he added.
The sanctions, announced by the U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday, target Chau Phirun, the director general of the Defense Ministry’s material and technical services department, and Tea Vinh, the commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy and brother of Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh.
The Treasury Department alleged that in 2020 and 2021, Chau conspired with Tea and other Cambodian officials to inflate costs of the Ream Naval Base construction project and then planned to use the funds for their own benefit.
“Chau and Tea were involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and the Cambodian public’s faith in their government institutions and public processes, including by using their political influence and official power for personal benefit,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Neither the Cambodian Defense Ministry nor the Royal Cambodian Navy could immediately be reached for comment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended what he called “equal and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Cambodia” on the project and accused the U.S. of interfering in Cambodia’s affairs by levying sanctions.
“China has always opposed unilateral sanctions and the so-called long-arm jurisdiction of the U.S., as well as its gross interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said at a daily briefing in Beijing.
The sanctions render Chau, Tea and their immediate family members ineligible for entry into the U.S., and freeze any assets in the U.S. that they hold. The Treasury Department did not detail whether either individual or their immediate families had financial interests in the U.S.
In addition to the sanctions, the Treasury Department, State Department and Commerce Department issued a business advisory cautioning U.S. firms "to be mindful of interactions with entities involved in corrupt business practices, criminal activities and human rights abuses.”
It identified two primary areas of risk: illegal financial activities in the financial, real estate, casino and infrastructure sectors, and entities involved in the trafficking of humans, wildlife and narcotics and “related risks in some areas of the manufacturing and timber sectors.”
American relations with the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office for 36 years, have long been frosty over concerns about the country's poor record on human and political rights.
In recent months, the U.S. has expressed further worries about ties between Cambodia and China, and has urged the leaders of Cambodia, which frequently supports Beijing's positions, to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy.
New tensions have focused partly on China’s construction of facilities at the Ream Naval Base, and the possibility its military could seek future basing rights there. Hun Sen has strongly denied reports that Cambodia would allow China to set up a military outpost there, saying such an agreement would be forbidden by Cambodia's constitution.
The base faces the Gulf of Thailand, which lies adjacent to the South China Sea, and holding basing rights in Cambodia would extend Beijing’s strategic military profile considerably.
In a meeting with Hun Sen in June, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed concern about China’s construction of new facilities at Ream.
She also sought clarification about the demolition of two U.S.-funded buildings at Ream without notification or explanation, and “observed that a (Chinese) military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations,” according to the State Department.
Rising reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalist Sam McNeil in Beijing contributed to this report.