The United States announced sanctions against two high-level Cambodian military officials last week, setting off a storm of invectives from Phnom Penh and ratcheting up tensions related to Chinese development around the strategically located Ream Naval Base.
In statements about the decision, the U.S. specifically cited corruption related to the naval base, which has become a geopolitical flashpoint between the superpowers, as the U.S. worries it may become a Chinese military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.
On November 10, the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department announced the sanctions against General Chau Phirun, director-general of the Defense Ministry's material and technical services department, and Admiral Tea Vinh, the Royal Cambodian Navy commander and the brother of Defense Minister Tea Banh.
The blacklisting bars the two men and their relatives from traveling to the U.S. and freezes any of their assets in the country, including those belonging to any entity in which they own a majority stake.
The State Department said Chau Phirun and Tea Vinh were involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and public faith in institutions. It specifically accused Chau Phirun of personally profiting from U.S.-backed improvements to the Ream Naval Base in 2020 and 2021 and inflating the costs of related construction.
U.S. embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier in Phnom Penh cited systemic corruption, transnational organized crime and human rights abuses when asked about the action against the generals.
"U.S. officials have regularly raised these concerns with Cambodia's leaders, but regrettably there have been no meaningful changes," he wrote in an email to VOA Khmer on November 11.
The State Department statement also said both men have been designated for public corruption under Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Neither Chau Phirun nor Tea Vinh responded to VOA Khmer's requests for comment made to their cellphones.
Ministry of Defense spokesperson General Chhum Socheat and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Koy Kuong did not respond to VOA Khmer's requests for comment. Tea Vinh's son, Tea Vichet, hung up when contacted by VOA Khmer.
Both ministries released statements Friday attributed to anonymous spokespeople rebuffing the U.S. sanctions against the two top Cambodian senior military officials.
"The Ministry of National Defense regards this action as senseless and provocative. The United States has once again tried to destroy the harmony of the Cambodian people," said the Defense Ministry.
"There is no difference between their current actions and their brutal behaviors undertaken in the past which resulted in destruction and tragedy for Cambodia and other countries around the world," it added.
The Defense Ministry added that the U.S. need not worry about the Chinese activity around the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. The base is located on the Gulf of Thailand.
"The modernization at REAM is certainly not a threat to the security of any countries, as alleged. The Ministry of National Defense and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces have always shown goodwill towards other countries' sovereignty and regard this as respect of mutual interests and a way of evading friction," the statement said.
"In contrast, the United States constantly displays a disregard for Cambodia's sovereignty to further its own interests and enhance its position in current geo-political rivalry," it added.
VOA Khmer contacted the Chinese embassies in Cambodia and in Washington on Tuesday for a response to the sanctions in light of U.S allegations of China's continuing involvement with the Ream base. There have been no responses.
Tensions were heating up over the developments around Cambodia's key port city before the U.S. sanctioned the military leaders.
Following the release of a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month showing that construction was continuing on the naval base, the U.S. embassy accused Cambodia of being opaque about its intentions.
Roedemeier, the U.S. embassy spokesperson, said at the time that it was "aware of consistent, credible reporting that significant construction by the People's Republic of China continues at Ream Naval Base."
At the time, VOA Khmer contacted the Chinese embassies in Phnom Penh and Washington for comment on the new construction at the Ream base. Neither responded.
In its statement last week responding to the latest U.S. sanctions, Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs deplored the "long-arm jurisdiction" of the U.S. in its statement, calling the allegations "groundless" and driven by geopolitical motives.
Chin Malin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice and vice chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Committee, on Thursday accused the U.S. of committing an "anarchic activity" contrary to the principles of international law and order.
He said the U.S. was guilty of the same sins as China and its other geopolitical foes. "It is the anarchy of international politics started by the superpowers," Chin Malin added.
Ruling party spokesperson Sok Eysan said the generals had no plans for visiting the U.S. "From my understanding … there will be no effect," he said.
However, Cambodian political observer Sophal Ear, associate dean for undergraduate programs and global development and associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, said the latest sanctions were significant as a sign of things to come.
"I think there could be hundreds of names in the future, so adding two more is important and symbolic. Cambodians have not been forgotten," Sophal Ear said in an email sent to VOA Khmer.
VOA's Khmer Service journalist Sok Khemara reported from Washington, and Hul Reaksmey provided additional reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.