Invested in relationship
Cambodia is a special case because of its brutal history. It is scarred by the 1970s genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, a communist movement that killed one-fifth of the population.
In recent years, the U.S. government has kept a careful diplomatic distance from Hun Sen, the prime minister who consolidated political control after a bloody 1997 coup and has forced opponents into exile.
The Pentagon and the State Department, however, have embraced his three sons, all of whom hold influential posts in the Cambodian government and military.
U.S. officials have invested in their relationship with Hun Manet, the eldest son, in particular, giving him a free ride to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1999. He earned a master’s degree in economics from New York University.
Today, the 35-year-old, widely seen as the heir apparent to his father, is a major general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, in which he serves as deputy commander of the army.
“I’m sure that’s why he was sent to West Point in the first place,” said a government official from neighboring Thailand, which has closely monitored Hun Manet’s emergence. “Hun Sen would like to build up his credibility and career because he’s so young.”
The U.S. military also paid for the prime minister’s youngest son, Hun Many, 29, to earn a master’s degree in strategic studies at the National Defense University in Washington last year.
The U.S. military arranged for the middle son, Hun Manith, a senior intelligence official, to
attend a counterterrorism course in Germany, according to an American diplomatic cable obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
In 2008, the U.S. government agreed to help Cambodia create a special unit to combat terrorism, saying it was worried that the country could become a refuge for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Five years earlier, the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Indonesia had spent several months hiding in Cambodia. About the same time, four other members of the group were charged with plotting to bomb the U.S. and British embassies in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
Other than that, the threat from al-Qaeda affiliates has been virtually nonexistent in Cambodia. In its annual report this year highlighting terrorist activity around the world, the State Department listed no problems in the country.
But the U.S. counterterrorism training has continued. In August, American advisers led Vector Balance Canoe, an annual joint exercise with Cambodia.