Cambodia set to foot cadets' US tuition fees

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Colonel Marcus Ferrara, Un Vuottek, Long Tola, US ambassador Patrick Murphy June 9, 2020. PATRICK MURPHY

Following a decision by the US government to cut off scholarships for six Cambodian cadets halfway through their undergraduate study programmes in the US, the Cambodian government has announced that it will cover the remaining tuition costs for them totalling $1.1 million.

Political analysts in Cambodia saw the US government decision to end the scholarships as being “unreasonable” and praised the Cambodian government’s intervention as exemplifying the traditional Khmer value of compatriotic love.

The Ministry of National Defence released a press statement on July 2 stating that the government will cover all expenses for the six cadets until they complete their undergraduate programmes at the four US military academies they are variously attending.

“Aware of the difficulties facing the Cambodian cadets due to the termination of their scholarships by the US, and in the spirit of responsibility for their futures and for the sake of the Cambodian military academy, the Cambodian government will cover the cost of tuition for all six students until graduation,” the statement said.

The government’s decision came shortly after the US government decided to end the full scholarships they had provided to the cadets citing “Cambodia’s curtailment of cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military-military engagement”.

The defence ministry said the decision to end their scholarships was made unilaterally by the US, and Cambodia was contacting relevant US entities regarding the matter.

According to a document obtained by The Post on July 2, two of the six cadets, Tri Lang and Un Vuottek, are at the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point and are scheduled to graduate in 2022 and 2024 respectively.

Nou Chanyuthea and Long Tola are at the US Air Force Academy and scheduled for graduation in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

Over in the nautical world, Pich Chantrea will graduate in 2022 from the US Naval Academy and Tann Chanbopich will graduate in 2022 from the US Coast Guard Academy.

Prior to his departure to the US back in 2018, Chanbopich said he applied for the graduate course at the US Coast Guard Academy because he was inspired by the Cambodian ancestors to defend his nation and because one prominent Cambodian graduate of a US military school is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet, an alumnus of West Point who is currently the deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

“My intention is that when I return I will serve in the military utilising my expertise to guard our coasts,” he said.

On June 9, 2020, US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy tweeted his congratulations to Long Tola and Un Vuottek for being granted scholarships to attend “the prestigious US Air Force Academy and West Point”.

“Proud of these young ‘ambassador cadets’ and the strong people-to-people ties at our competitive US service academies,” Patrick Murphy said at the time.

Just before the government announced it would cover the tuition costs, US Air Force Academy cadet Chanyuthea and his friends started a crowd-funding campaign with the goal of raising enough money to cover tuition costs estimated at $112,000.

As of July 2, over $24,000 had been donated, but Chanyuthea has now informed the donors that he will refund their money.

“Thank you so much for your support. I have great news to share! The United States government has authorised Cambodian cadets to continue their education where they are enrolled provided that the Cambodian government pays for the remaining tuition.

“The two nations have reached an agreement and Cambodian cadets will be able to continue at their current service academies. I am beyond happy to be given this second chance!,” Chanyuthea said.

The Post could not reach defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat for comment regarding the payment of these tuition costs.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay applauded the move.

“Our [Cambodian] government’s benevolence in helping our students complete their studies should be appreciated [since] the US government has abruptly ended its grants.

“Normally, the government of such a great nation would not do this and would continue to help such students until they completed their studies,” he said referring to the US.

“In 1975 I continued to benefit from the British government’s benevolence in order to complete my PhD studies even though it did not recognize the Khmer Rouge government,” he added.

Mong Hay said the combined scholarships represented a microscopic speck in the enormous US budget and the ending of these grants when the students were midway through their studies should be taken as an overt expression of the US government’s displeasure with Cambodia’s “pro-Chinese foreign policy”, and as such this development should not be taken lightly.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said ending the scholarships suddenly by citing “military cooperation curtailment” was an unacceptable breach of polite diplomatic etiquette. He appreciated the government’s responsible decision to cover the remaining tuition costs.

The US’ gesture to grant the scholarships, he said, was done to promote US interests. It was not on a humanitarian basis or because the US loved Cambodia and wanted to build up human resources there in all honestly.

Phea said these scholarships were provided because the US wanted those youth to love America and have American hearts in the event that in the future they rise to leadership positions in their home countries, a not-unlikely scenario given the advantages of the education they will have received abroad.

“The Cambodian government’s response is a message to the US that Cambodia will never leave their people behind. No matter what happens, the government will always back them.

“It is also a message to all Cambodian compatriots that no one loves Khmer more than Khmer themselves. What other [nations] do for us is more or less for their own interests. So, in this case, the government has to fulfil its duty to help its citizens by paying the tuition costs,” Phea said.

He said the story may not end with the students able to pursue their undergraduate courses in peace. The US may come up with other reasons to end their studies later on, such as raising false security or espionage concerns.

“The US should think twice [and refrain from further actions] in this case in order to maintain their reputation as a superpower, or they will only be showing the world who they truly are,” Phea said.