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Alleged US ‘spy’ says he was just trying to visit his Cambodian fiancé

A view of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Released)
March 04, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

It isn’t exactly a plot from a spy novel, but the absurdities of circumstance read more like fiction than real life.

Mark Gibbel, a retired NASA engineer, said he was visiting his fiance in Cambodia when a government-aligned news outlet, citing unnamed police sources, claimed that he was secretly a Central Intelligence Agency spy sent to carry out ‘political subversion’.

The allegation made in Fresh News would be “funny if it wasn’t so serious,” Gibbel, 68, told RFA.

The Cambodian outlet reported on Wednesday that Gibbel was allegedly working with Meach Sovannara, former spokesman for the Cambodian National Rescue Party, the country’s largest opposition party until it was dissolved in a widely criticized court decision in 2017.

It later cited an unnamed senior police officer saying an investigation had been opened into Gibbel’s alleged political activities in Cambodia with Meach.

“After information was leaked, Mark Gibbel, a CIA agent, left Cambodia last night,” the police official is quoted as saying.

Police were investigating why the “CIA agents” were in Phnom Penh in order to prevent any societal unrest ahead of a closely watched verdict expected this Friday on the treason trial of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha, Fresh News said.

Gibbel said he had gone to Cambodia not to stir up trouble, but to visit a woman he hopes to make his wife.

“I was trying to figure out how my future life should go, should I live with my girl in Cambodia or live with her in the U.S.?” Gibbel said, adding: “I think this silly accusation [has] maybe forced our hand, [I have] no choice but to try to get her safely to America.”

He has a professional association with Meach in the U.S., where the two run a nonprofit organization, the Policy Research Institute in California, that provides educational materials for youths in South East Asia. Gibbel insisted that the charity is apolitical.

Kicked out

Gibbel said he first suspected something strange was happening when police turned up at his guesthouse in Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning, insisting he thumbprint a three-page handwritten incident report in Khmer.

The document does not accuse him of spying. It instead says that he purchased flower seeds to grow in the U.S and met with Meach. Assured by his fiancé’s brother that the document contained nothing untoward, Gibbel complied with the officers’ directive.

But his landlady – unimpressed at having her business overrun with policemen – threw Gibbel out, which he took as his cue to leave Cambodia. It was not until he arrived in Thailand on Wednesday evening that he learned he had been accused of being a spy. Since he left Cambodia, his fiancé and her family have been under police surveillance, he said.

The accusation has come as a shock, not least because he is not opposed to the Cambodian government, Gibbel said.

“In the USA I have many friends that are members of the CPP,” he said.

He had even been thinking of trying to meet Hun Manet, eldest son to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his anointed successor.

“I have many friends that speak highly of him,” Gibbel said.

Gibbel’s alleged co-conspirator, Meach, has also denied the Fresh News accusations of espionage, calling the report “unacceptable.”

Meach had previously served a prison sentence of 20 years on insurrection charges, though he was released and pardoned in 2018 following the Cambodian elections. He told RFA he had not been contacted by police regarding the latest allegations.

The privately-owned Fresh News is known for fierce editorial loyalty to Prime Minister Hun Sen and has used its pages to warn against perceived criticism of his government.

On Thursday, it claimed that RFA and another non-state news outlet, Cambodia Daily, were inciting youths against the government with their independent reporting.