Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the military to inventory all U.S.-origin weapons currently in use and to either store or destroy them, a quick reaction to the U.S. placing an arms embargo on Cambodia.
The U.S. Commerce Department issued an arms embargo Wednesday night prohibiting the sale of all arms and military equipment, including for intelligence gathering agencies. It even blacklisted the military’s General Department of Research and Intelligence, which is headed by Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manith.
“At the same time, I would like to issue an order to all armed units to immediately review the weapons and military equipment that Cambodia currently has and to collect all U.S. military weapons and equipment,” Hun Sen wrote on Facebook. “If we have any, store it in a warehouse or destroy it as per the situation.”
The prime minister added that he was thankful to the U.S. for its decision to ban weapons sales.
“It is a warning message for Cambodians who will rule the next government to know that if you want independence in national defense, please do not use United States weapons,” he said.
Hun Sen added that regimes using American-made weapons had “lost the war,” pointing to the short-lived Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s and to America’s inability to halt the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan even with all their weaponry.
He also mentioned the contentious assistance given to the Lon Nol government, around $270 million, which had indebted Cambodia to the U.S., he said. Estimates suggest the war-era debt stands at around $700 million and both governments have failed to reach a decision on how to repay this debt.
The arms embargo follows a raft of punitive sanctions taken against Cambodians by the U.S., including the recent use of the Global Magnitsky Act against two Cambodian military officials for alleged corruption at the under-renovation Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province.
Senior military officials claimed on Friday that only old American-made weapons were in use, most of which had been taken from fleeing Lon Nol soldiers, but they would not comment on how the embargo would affect Cambodia’s future weapons needs.
RCAF spokesperson Thong Solimo said he was unaware if U.S.-made weapons were being used by the military because his job was to only “fight in the army.”
Mao Phalla, a spokesperson for RCAF’s infantry, said they had old rifles like AR-15s, which were from before the Khmer Rouge regime or had been purchased by resistance factions Funcinpec and Son Sann’s armed fighters during the civil war.
“We have never got funds from the U.S. and never bought [weapons]. I dare to claim this because I have been a soldier for more than 40 years and I am very clear about this; we have never bought and received [arms] from the [U.S.],” Phalla said.
Military police chief Sao Sokha said Cambodia had no need for arms and would rather invest in the country’s infrastructure.
“Cambodia does not need to buy weapons since Cambodia [needs] money to make roads, bridges, [erect] electric poles and to build schools and hospitals. There is no money going to [the U.S.] because Cambodia is at peace and does not need guns or use them to shoot who?”
He said old M16 and M18 rifles, and M203 grenade launchers had been used by the military in the past.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reacted on Thursday to the arms embargo by accusing the U.S. of hampering ties with the Southeast Asian country by “threatening, pressuring and sanctioning Cambodia.”
“This typical hegemonic and bullying practice is at odds with basic norms governing international relations. China firmly opposes this,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. “The attempt by the US to drive wedges between China and Cambodia is doomed to fail.”