Is Cambodia an easy target for terrorists?

Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Cambodia’s position at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia makes it an attractive base for criminals and militants. Hun Sen says he is standing up to illicit activity.

By John Pennington, edited by Francesca Ross

Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s biggest terrorism risks. Limited democratic freedom, community tensions and a lack of resources mean it sits fourth in the region in the Global Terrorism Index.

There is wide anti-government sentiment in modern Cambodia. This is thanks to the fault lines laid down in the country’s recent bloody history. Terrorist groups such as so-called Islamic State (IS) take advantage of this and use Cambodian territory as a base for operations, as a refuge, and to radicalise its residents.

Cambodian citizens are “susceptible to money, ideology, and influence from beyond its borders,” says the United States. Although Islam remains a small, minority religion, mostly centred among the ethnic Cham community, religious teaching funded with money from the Middle East is increasing in impact.

Terrorism in Cambodia is nothing new

The government has been fighting organised groups for many years. “None of [these groups] have posed a real threat to the Cam­bodian government in the sense that they could have overthrown the government or instigated a mass uprising,” explained Carlyle Thayer, Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Troops from the anti-communist, anti-government Cambodian Freedom Fighters killed eight people and injured many more during a failed coup in Phnom Penh in 2000. More than 100 people were arrested for that uprising and five coup leaders were sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-four others were jailed. There have been several other terrorist attacks, or attempted attacks since, including a plan to leave explosives in a busy park.

New threats are evolving

Cambodia is an established shelter and transit point for militants and smugglers thanks to its position at the heart of Southeast Asia. Groups trafficking weapons, drugs, money or people see Cambodia as a country of convenience. It does not have the resources to sufficiently monitor its borders with Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam and people and goods can easily slip through.

Prime Minister Hun Sen still maintains terrorists are not welcome and his country will not provide an easy base. However, the Cambodian National Police force is plagued with corruption and the law enforcement system is under-developed. Defence and military spending continues to rise, but with limited maritime capability, forces are actually ill-equipped to prevent terrorists from operating on their shores.

So-called IS say they already have Cambodian fighters within their ranks. One fighter is known to have joined following a trip to Cambodia in 2012. He was later arrested in Turkey. In 2003, Hambali, the former leader of militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, was arrested in Bangkok. Cambodia alleged he tried to bomb the British Embassy in Phnomh Penh in 2002.

Turkey accused Cambodian schools of harbouring terrorists

Cambodia is also linked to terrorist activity further afield. Turkish ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug has called for the Zaman International School in Phonmh Penh to be shut down. He said the school was overseen by the terrorist group behind the unsuccessful 2016 coup in Turkey.

Zaman International denied that Gulen had any involvement in how the school is run. Turkey countered by warning Cambodia that they would be “under threat” if the facility did not close. The school remains open.

Security is high on the Cambodian government’s agenda

National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun called for more vigilance saying “Cambodia is part of the region. So Cambodia needs to strongly strengthen counterterrorism in order to prevent it from happening in Cambodia.” Cambodian officials rank terrorism as the country’s biggest security concern.

But what if this vigilance and other security measures are part of a bigger plan? Experts say a large-scale attack on Cambodian territory is remote. Hun Sen’s government may be using the threat of terrorist groups as a false flag.

“I do not think the [Hun Sen] regime is paranoid about such groups,” added Carlyle Thayer. “The regime is concerned about the impact of external im­pressions of Cambodia’s stability. And, to a certain extent, these groups provide the opportunity for the regime to implicate the opposition,” he believed.

The Cambodian people say they worry over security.  The government can capitalise on this fear to crack down on all sorts of activities, including opposition from within Cambodia. Hun Sen can create the perception he is protecting his people from a greater threat, not oppressing and intimidating his opponents.

Cambodia is moving towards China, which is driving counter-terrorism strategy

The recent decision to postpone joint counter-terrorism exercises with Australia, and stop military exercises with the US, is a backwards step. Hun Sen is moving away from his traditional partners in defence and instead looking to China.  The country is already ill-equipped to combat terrorists operating within their territory, and this may further weaken their defences.

There are other worries for Cambodian authorities. “Embezzlement, corruption, drugs, human trafficking, illegal deforestation, smuggling and wildlife crime often involve money laundering,” said Om Yentieng, president of the Anti-Corruption Unit.

“We have not paid enough attention to combating this. We know many institutions have limited abilities in this area,” he explained.  This dirty money may be fuelling violence and terrorist acts on Cambodia’s shores and beyond.

Cambodia is not an obvious place for so-called IS to focus attention

So-called IS currently focuses its Southeast Asian activities on Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. But the threat is growing. Myanmar now faces the rise of Islamic militants. Cambodia may not be far behind.

Cambodia is a “major source” of smuggled weapons and Hun Sen’s government has admitted helping Muslims fighting in the Philippines, as well as Karen rebels in Myanmar. If those in power continue to erode democracy, it can only harbour militancy and anti-government sentiment. This can be exploited by militants in any way they can. Myanmar’s new problems are a case in point.

Cambodia may be left with bloody hands unless the rule of law is enforced

The biggest risk for Hun Sen’s government is not an attack at home, but being left with bloody hands for an overseas strike seeded on his territory. The current focus on internal political issues creates a window where the actions of undesirable groups and interests may fester without attention from the authorities.

The Prime Minister needs to get his priorities right. More needs to be done to reinforce the rule of law. Smuggling and other illicit activity is already affecting the Cambodian economy, and so the population. A terrorist act would reduce vital tourism revenue and slow an economy already suffering from revenue lost to smuggling.

With threats from within and without, the nation – and its people – must choose both their friends and their foes very, very carefully.