Villagers in western Cambodia’s Battambang province said Wednesday that the government’s decision to cancel a contract with a unit of the U.S. Navy for millions of dollars of humanitarian work last month has left them without access to adequate maternal health care facilities.
In late March, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government notified the U.S. Embassy that it had decided to indefinitely postpone a humanitarian assistance program with the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion—better known as the Seabees—after nine years of work in Cambodia.
The decision canceled 20 planned projects across several provinces, the U.S. Embassy said in an April 3 statement posted on its Facebook page.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman told RFA’s Khmer Service at the time that Cambodia’s defense ministry offered no reason for the decision, which scrapped six bathroom facilities for schools and two new maternity wards in 2017, at a cost U.S. $265,000, and an additional U.S. $550,000 in projects planned for 2018-2019.
The embassy has referred requests for information about the status of the projects to the Cambodian government.
Cambodia’s defense ministry has denied canceling the contract, which has seen the Seabees deliver more than U.S. $5 million in service projects since 2008, working with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and local communities to build hospital and school improvements in 11 provinces.
On Wednesday, villagers from Battambang’s Maung district praised the work of the Seabees in upgrading a health center in Kor Koh commune in 2015, saying the facility has provided critical medical services to residents.
Mean Rumchang, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Kor Koh, said she depends on the health center and expressed frustration that the government’s decision to cancel the contract had thrown plans for a new maternity ward into flux.
“My house is close to the center and I don’t have money for medical treatment at places further away than here,” she said.
“If [the Seabees] come to help construct a maternity ward near here, it would be much more convenient for us. Without their support, we must travel far for treatment, affecting our livelihood.”
One of several patients lined up to receive medical treatment from the Kor Koh health center on Wednesday told RFA the facility was affordable and convenient.
“Poor people, such as myself, can come to this health center from far away for care,” said the patient, who spoke to RFA anonymously.
“I would be much happier if they continued their help.”
Vann Kim Orn, who runs the Kor Koh health center, told RFA that she had hoped the Seabees would add a new maternity ward and a clean water well for the use of residents and her staff members.
“[But] if the U.S. has concluded its mission, it will affect the residents,” she said.
“My goal was to oversee the building of a maternity ward, so we can accommodate additional residents for medical treatment—particularly women and children,” she said, noting that Kor Koh commune consists of eight villages, which are home to 14,869 people, or around 3,160 families.
Vann Kim Orn said she had already submitted a request to the Seabees for assistance in constructing the maternity ward and well, but has yet to receive a reply.
Cambodia’s decision to expel the Seabees comes after its defense ministry earlier this year suspended annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military and abandoned counter-terrorism training exercises with the Australian military.
The government has claimed it is too busy preparing security for June commune elections to take part in the exercises, but observers say the moves indicate Cambodia is pivoting away from Western influence in favor of better relations with other countries on the rise in Asia, such as China.
Last year marked the first joint naval drill between China and Cambodia, after Beijing provided Phnom Penh with military aid, including weapons and training.
After reports emerged that the Seabees contract had been suspended, the Phnom Penh Post quoted government spokesman Phay Siphan denying that Cambodia was shifting away from Washington and improving its relationship with Beijing.
“We respect the mutual interests of both countries,” he said, referring further questions to the defense ministry.
Trade between Cambodia and China is expected to surpass U.S. $5 billion in 2017.
Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.