Cambodia defends right to relocate US-funded facility at Ream Naval Base

A military officer stands guard at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on July 26. Photo by Mech Dara. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

PHNOM PENH, Nov 11, 2020, Khmer Times. Following disappointment expressed by the United States over the demolition of another US-built facility at Ream Naval Base, Defence Minister General Tea Banh defended the move, saying it was a razed exercise and the structure was on Cambodian sovereign territory, Khmer Times reported.

The new demolition comes just slightly more than a month after a reaction by the Pentagon which said it was concerned about reports that the US-funded Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security was demolished in September, leading the US Department of Defence to ask the government for an explanation.

Rear Admiral Mey Dina, spokesman for the Royal Cambodian Navy’s Naval Ream Base yesterday refused to comment on the case and referred the question to the Ministry of Defence.

The US think tank’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Monday published recent satellite imagery from Planet and Maxar, which revealed Cambodia had demolished another US-built facility at its largest naval base in Preah Sihanouk province.

CSIS noted that the National Committee for Maritime Security Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Maintenance Facility and adjoining boat ramp had been constructed in 2017.

“An analysis of satellite imagery indicates that demolition work on the RHIB facility began in late October and was completed by November 2, at the latest. An image from October 26 shows the work in progress, with boats moved outside and the roof partially removed,” the CSIS said on its website.

Chad Roedemeier, US Embassy spokesman, said via an email that the embassy was aware of the report that another US-built facility at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province has been demolished.

“We are disappointed that Cambodian military authorities have demolished another maritime security facility funded by the United States, without notification or explanation,” he said.

“The Prime Minister has said Cambodia would not allow an exclusive or permanent foreign military presence anywhere in the country and that ships from around the world will be welcome to call at Ream,” he added. “We hope the government continues to abide by that position.”

Gen Banh yesterday released his telephone interview with the media, in which he said the National Committee for Maritime Security is relocating the Tactical Command Headquarters of NCMS to a new location in Koh Preab area, which is about 30 kilometres away from the old location.

“It is just a small boat maintenance facility,” Gen Banh said. “At the new location, we will build a bigger and more modern facility.”

He said it had been necessary to demolish the two US-funded facilities to expand the military port at the Ream Naval Base.

Asked if the government informed the US embassy about the demolition of the US-funded facility, Gen Banh said it is not necessary to do so.

“It is not necessary to inform or ask for advice from anyone because we work in Cambodian territory under Cambodian sovereignty,” he said, adding he considers the demolition of the US-built facility at Ream Naval Base as a “trifling” matter which has been exaggerated.

However, Gen Banh noted the government has always asked the US to dispose of chemical bombs, which were dropped by US war-planes during the war at several places and are a threat to villagers, but did not receive a positive response from the US.

“Previously, we asked them several times to remove the chemical bombs that were dropped during the war, but they refused to go there,” he added.

After the first demolition of a US-funded facility in September, the Pentagon expressed its concern that the Kingdom may be hosting China military personnel at the naval base.

“We have concerns that razing the facility may be tied to the Cambodian government plans for hosting People’s Republic of China (PRC) military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base,” Reuters quoted the Pentagon as saying at that time.

However, the Secretariat of NCMS said the relocation of the Tactical Command Headquarters has been discussed since late 2017, and the committee also informed and explained the reasons for this decision to international partners, particularly the United States.

It said the facility’s new location will be at Koh Preab area, which is favourable to address various problems which cropped up in the old location.

NCMS said as a national institution, the new Tactical Command Headquarters (TCH) requires an independent location which can facilitate and enhance its operations, interventions, and rescue efforts.

“In addition, the TCH needs to develop its capacity through infrastructure and operational effectiveness, which cannot be achieved in its current location,” it added.

The NCMS notes the construction of the new headquarters, which is larger in scale, will avoid any detrimental impact on the support provided by its international partners.

“This new location will facilitate increased operational efficiency through its own docking facilities, simplify liaisons between relevant national institutions, provide freedom for further infrastructure expansion and promote cooperation with international partners,” it added.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last month also lashed out at an unnamed Western country, which refers to the US, to produce concrete evidence that the Kingdom may be hosting Chinese military assets and personnel at a naval base.

“Does China have military personnel in Cambodia? When did Cambodia give China the right to have troops there? I reiterate that I’m fed up with some foreigners and Cambodians who are stirring up the issue,” he said.

“If you do not believe the Prime Minister, do you have any evidence that Cambodia has a secret deal with China for exclusive use of the port of Ream Naval Base for 30 years?” he added. “If you do not give evidence, you are lying.”

The allegation about a Chinese naval base at Ream Naval Base was first made by The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, which published a report saying that a secret deal had been struck between the two nations for China to use the base, an allegation vehemently denied by both countries.

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