US dangles cash for Cambodian cadets

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Nou Chanyuthea is a cadet at the US Air Force Academy. FACEBOOK

Six Cambodian cadets who are studying at four US military academies – including the prestigious and storied West Point – may have to quit their courses of study soon as their US government scholarships are ending due to Cambodia’s loss of eligibility for the US military service academy programme.

“Following Cambodia’s curtailment of cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military-military engagement, the country lost its eligibility for the US military service academy program,” said Arend Zwartjes, the US embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh.

“As a reflection of their good academic standing, however, Cambodian students currently enrolled at military service academies are permitted to complete their undergraduate programs,” he noted.

According to Arend, the students who are currently at West Point are there on full scholarship, but if they or the Cambodian government is able to pay the remaining cost of their tuition they will be welcome to remain at the school and complete their undergraduate degree programmes.

“The United States has encouraged the Cambodian government to assist its students with the remaining tuition costs,” he said.

When asked how eligibility for the US military service academy programme can be regained or if other students have been forced to terminate their studies before completion and whether they had been given any advance warning or clearly informed about this possibility ahead of their enrolment or departure, he referred those questions to the US Department of Defence.

Two of the students are at West Point Military Academy, two are attending the US Air Force Academy, one student is at the US Naval Academy and one is studying at the Coast Guard Academy, according the Voice of America Khmer Services.

Nou Chanyuthea is one of the six students and a cadet at the US Air Force Academy. Upon receiving the information from the US government that his scholarship was ending, Chanyuthea took to the online crowd-funding site GoFundMe to seek financial support for completing his degree.

“As of May 27, I received terrible news from the US government that my scholarship will be terminated immediately due to [US-Cambodia] diplomatic relations. Now, without any support from the US government, I am unable to finish my undergraduate [programme],” he said in his fundraising campaign pitch.

“So, that is why I am reaching out to you – so that you can help me finish my degree somewhere in the United States.”

His crowd-funding campaign started on June 19, with a fundraising goal of over $112,000 to cover two more academic years at a university in the US. As of July, nearly $24,000 had been donated to him.

Cambodia-US joint military exercise Angkor Sentinel has been postponed since 2017, with Cambodia claiming that it was too busy preparing the commune and national elections in 2017 and 2018 to participate.

The Cambodian Ministry of National Defence claimed back then that it was just a temporary postponement and that the bilateral military relationship remained strong.

Whatever the state of US-Cambodia military ties happens to be, Chanyuthea said it had very little to do with his trying to earn a college degree.

“I have no say or involvement in the decisions that the Cambodian government has made. One of the main purposes I was selected to attend the US Air Force Academy was to strive to improve the relationship between our nations.

“I went through the hurdles of getting an appointment to a military academy because I believe in what the United States stands for: democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. These values were exemplified by the US embassy in Phnom Penh ... and that made a profound impact on me while growing up,” he said.

He said the decision to terminate his scholarship was likely irreversible due to diplomatic and strategic reasons, but he hoped to finish his undergraduate degree somewhere else in the US.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said ending the scholarships given to these students is like imposing sanctions on Cambodian youths who love the US and the government has yet to decide on whether they can help provide the tuition costs for them.

“These youths who love the US are losing out on their college dreams and that is regrettable. Other youths [who wish to study abroad] should think of alternative destinations like France, Japan and others,” Siphan said.

He said he was not sure which programme the six students in the US were a part of, but there are two programmes through which students can get scholarships to the US, including full scholarships through the defence ministry.

Ending these scholarships was an unfortunate development in the bilateral relations between the two countries, said Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute.

“People-to-people ties should be maintained even though there are differences over strategic issues. I hope both sides can find common ground to de-escalate these tensions and restore mutual strategic understanding and a stable degree of political trust, especially in order to maintain educational and cultural exchanges,” Vannarith said.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said it was terribly unfortunate that these students have to deal with this situation.

“We see they are playing geopolitical games with the fates of these students with big dreams and aspirations for their studies. It is like they are throwing them overboard in the middle of the river and forcing them to try and reach the opposite bank by themselves,” he said.

He said the US always spoke about virtues and the value of human rights, including the right to an education and these scholarships should be purely for educational purposes and should not be attached to anything that could damage the students.

“The US should think twice about making this inhumane decision that could sabotage the futures of these students. If they do things like this then clearly their assistance has strings attached and comes with ulterior motives. It is not honest assistance with the development of human resources in Cambodia,” Phea said.