More than 600 civilians and soldiers competed in annual military games on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island on Sunday, hoisting heavy tires, racing with weighted backpacks and marching in formation in an event intended to warm public attitudes toward the armed forces.
“The event today is to promote civil-military awareness and friendship in order for the public to understand what the role of the military is,” said Hun Manet, the oldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a senior figure in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Speaking to reporters after an hour of grinning and flashing thumbs-up in selfies with eager fans after the games, Lieutenant General Manet echoed remarks his father had made the previous day during a ceremony marking the fall of the Khmer Rouge 38 years ago.
“The peace, security and stability we feel today is a result of the armed forces,” he said. “If you go one day without the presence of traffic police at the corner, gendarmerie, you will feel unsafe.”
Though the war games are an annual occurrence marking January 7, the day Pol Pot was toppled by Vietnamese forces, Sunday’s event was the largest ever, said presiding officials. It was also the first time that civilian teams were allowed to participate in the games, and the first time the games were not held at a military academy outside the city.
The concrete arena was festooned with Cambodian flags and armored vehicles with visitor-friendly features such as cutout figures of heavily armed soldiers, behind which people could pose as modern warriors. Divisions of the military set up exhibitions and souvenir booths around the area, offering curious civilians the opportunity to take selfies in military garb as enterprising coffee and iced-tea peddlers prowled the thin ranks of onlookers.
When the military has rolled through the streets over the past year—during the week of the funeral procession of Kem Ley, a commentator whose murder is widely believed to have been politically motivated, and again when the CNRP threatened mass demonstrations—it has quickly raised public anxiety.
However, Lt. Gen. Manet said the reception of this year’s games showed the public was curious—not fearful—toward the military.
“People go to look at the military equipment. They’re not scared, they just go to take pictures,” he said. “They’re interested to see, what is the role of the military?”
Lt. Gen. Manet illustrated his point by noting Saturday night’s commemoration of January 7, which he said had attracted 30,000 people to the area.
“If people are afraid of the military, they won’t love soldiers and they won’t want to know about them. No one would have come,” he said. “No one pointed a gun at them or forced them to come here.”
Oum Measrithy, 20, a student at Build Bright University who came with a student association to participate in the games, said he enjoyed the taste of military life.
“It is difficult,” he said. “I never had this kind of discipline before.”
After participating in a series of challenges, including running 4 km with a 5 kg backpack strapped on, he said the reality of life as a soldier was starting to settle in.
“Some say that being a soldier is easy, but in fact it is not easy,” he said. “This is just only 10 percent of the obstacles that soldiers face.”
Yan Monyneath, a 22-year-old army medic from Phnom Penh, said she hoped next year she would have the chance to participate in the games.
“I want to, but I’m afraid I won’t be so good,” she said, gesturing at the ranks of men being honored for their strength and endurance.
“Next year, if I can join, I’ll train every day —I’ll do pushups and situps and run for 7 km in the morning.”
Both she and Lt. Gen. Manet emphasized that the event was separate from the politics of January 7—a day marked enthusiastically by the CPP, but viewed in opposition quarters as the start of a Vietnamese occupation.
“We don’t guard just one party, we guard all the people,” said Ms. Monyneath, a claim often made by her overtly political commanders in the military. “We have no loyalty to a party.”