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The Hidden Cost of Cambodia Downgrading US Military Ties

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The Hidden Cost of Cambodia Downgrading US Military Ties

There are real lives being affected by Phnom Penh’s decision to suspend the Seabees program.

The Hidden Cost of Cambodia Downgrading US Military Ties
Credit: Department of Defense Photo

Earlier this month, I wrote about Cambodia’s decision to suspend the Seabees program – a term commonly used to refer to the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, which has carried out humanitarian assistance in Cambodia over the past nine years (See: “Why Did Cambodia Just Downgrade US Military Ties Again?”).

As I wrote then, the move, along with an earlier decision to temporarily suspend a U.S. exercise, has been read by some observers as an incremental if poorly-crafted effort by Phnom Penh to downgrade its defense relationship with the United States as it seeks to boost military ties with China (See: “Why Did Cambodia Just Cut US Military Drills?”).

Though the Cambodian government and its acolytes are right that the U.S.-China angle tends to be played up too much in individual foreign policy decisions, their suggestion that these developments relate more to temporary constraints it has with upcoming elections also creates a false separation between domestic and foreign policy that is disingenuous. The connections between the survival of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, ongoing developments in Cambodian domestic politics, and the country’s shifting foreign policy – most notably its growing dependence on China over the past few years – is clear for all to see even amid the smoke and mirrors (See: “Cambodia: A New Mediator Between China and ASEAN?”).

But also I also pointed out in the piece, the move also had costs that were not as heavily emphasized amid the focus on geopolitical shifts, a more “hidden cost.” The expulsion of the Seabees essentially cut off a link that had contributed tangibly, albeit modestly, to bettering the livelihoods of the Cambodian people. The U.S. Embassy calculates that over the past nine years that the Seabees had operated in Cambodia, the team had carried out more than $5 million in community service projects benefiting tens of thousands of Cambodians, including building hospitals and schools in 11 provinces.

The Cambodian government’s decision to expel the Seabees, the U.S. Embassy has said, cancels 20 planned projects – including six bathroom facilities for schools and two new maternity wards planned for 2017 – with the Cambodian government announcing no plans as yet for replacements. But what might this hidden cost actually look like, beyond these general statements?

To begin to get a sense of this, consider some reporting released last week from Radio Free Asia (RFA), which interviewed people in Kor Koh commune in Maung district in western Cambodia’s Battambang province, where an upgrading of a health center had been planned.

Vann Kim Orn, who runs the Kor Koh health center, told RFA that the addition of a new maternity ward and a clean water well for use of residents and staff would have allowed for the accommodation of additional residents for medical treatment who might otherwise lack access to it – particularly women and children.

“If the U.S. has concluded its mission, it will affect the residents,” she told RFA candidly.

RFA also interviewed the villagers themselves, who attested to the fact that the health center – and facilities within it like a planned maternity ward – was an affordable and convenient option for them and that they otherwise would not have the money or the time to seek treatment at places much further away.

Mean Rumchang, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Kor Koh, spoke directly to this.

“My house is close to the center and I don’t have money for medical treatment at places further away than here,” she told RFA.

“If [the Seabees] come to help construct a maternity ward near here, it would be much more convenient for us. Without their support, we must travel far for treatment, affecting our livelihood.”

Of course, one should be under no illusions that these revelations would fundamentally shift the calculations of the Hun Sen regime, which, particularly with upcoming elections, will rest more on factors directly related to efforts to stay in power. Nonetheless, they are yet another powerful reminder that decisions by regimes like those in Cambodia have real consequences for its people, even though those costs may not really be weighed in the making of foreign policy. These costs may be hidden, but they are real and they deserve emphasis too.