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Banh warns of ‘hurricane’ of change

Defence Minister Tea Banh speaks at the National Defence University last week in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied
Defence Minister Tea Banh speaks at the National Defence University last week in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Banh warns of ‘hurricane’ of change

Cambodia's military should be ready to stop the “hurricane” of change as it gathers strength with the approaching election, Defence Minister Tea Banh warned last week.

The leader of Cambodia’s ostensibly neutral armed forces made the comments at the Ministry of Defence to more than 800 newly minted soldiers, accepted into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces after completing their training last year.

He also passed out some 150 cases of free beer, 200 kilograms of beef and reading materials, intended to help soldiers “wake up”, remember the “value of peace” and avoid “getting lost”.

Though political diatribes by top brass in the Kingdom’s military are far from rare, the minister’s speech on Thursday appeared to go a step further, suggesting possible intervention by the military after making thinly veiled references to the threat posed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Accusing the unnamed enemy of “tricks”, “insults” and not giving due credit for the country’s development, Banh warned of the “dangers” of unsatisfied soldiers turning to the opposition.

“We consider it a hurricane that blows towards each of us, making [us] think that it is the right thing and about whether there should be change or not,” he said.

“We need to study this . . . It does not mean that I take this opportunity to politicise, but the thing is, if we don’t speak, it becomes impossible, because politics always comes to haunt us and make trouble for us."

Addressing these problems “will a big aim for our Royal Cambodian Armed Forces . . . We consider [our] forces are the forces that can stop or prevent it from implementing its desires easily,” he added, in an apparent veiled reference to the opposition.

Cambodia’s military has long been accused of supporting the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, with most of its top brass senior party members.

And in one sense, the defence minister’s appeal to recognise the “value of peace” goes some way to explaining the increasingly hostile attitude adopted by the Kingdom’s military heavyweights.

For many in RCAF, peace has been lucrative.

In a chapter of the yet-to-be-released book Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia, academic Paul Chambers describes the “iron triangle” of collaboration between the military, businesses and the CPP fostered by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a means to personalise control over Cambodia’s security services.

Protected, military figures have prospered, with oft-reported links to land grabs, logging, smuggling and protection rackets.

The result, writes Chambers, a professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, has reinforced an age-old “relationship of dependency”, with the military as a political “vassal” granted economic benefits in exchange for party loyalty.

Eager for funds to subsidise costs and appease officers, the premier has also promoted and formalised links between the military and private firms, who “sponsor” units and receive “advantages” such as military protection of their operations and, often, enforcement of their land claims against villagers, he writes.

As the election draws near, Chambers asks the question of how long the CPP can rely on such “contracted loyalty” and what the outcome might be should the ruling party lose in 2018.

Although entertaining the possibility that for the right price and benefits security forces would support any winning party, he says that “most likely” they would not accept a loss, particularly Hun Sen’s “praetorian” forces, such as his personal Bodyguard Unit. The end result, Chambers argues, would likely be military infighting, or even a military-backed coup.

Contacted by email yesterday, Chambers said Banh’s speech was “not surprising”.

“Cambodia’s military elite are not about to surrender the vested business interests which they have enjoyed under Hun Sen’s ‘peace’ to any unpredictable future changes for the military spearheaded by the CNRP,” he said.

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