CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann on Thursday moved to clarify his position on the armed forces after the Defense Ministry accused him of “looking down” on the government and the work of the army.
In a lengthy written statement issued Thursday, Mr. Sovann spoke in glowing terms about the “patriotism and braveness” of the military, adding that in his own political career he had always been a firm supporter of the troops and even called for their salaries to be raised.
“As a lawmaker for more than 15 years, I have always advocated to protect the armed forces’ interests and especially requested a raise in salary for the armed forces so that they have a decent living wage when they have been serving the country,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said comments made by Mr. Sovann last week that “troops serve the illegal government”—which were made in response to public declarations of support for the government and last year’s election from General Banh—discredited the work of the army.
“I absolutely deny the press release from the Defense Ministry…that misinterpreted what I said,” Mr. Sovann said, adding that his remarks were actually directed toward a smaller number of military top brass, who he said were instrumental in orchestrating and ordering the lethal suppression of garment strikes as well as CNRP protests.
He said such actions showed army support for one political party over another, even though, “in accordance with the law, the armed forces must be neutral in their roles and duties.”
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer and the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, said the law is unclear when it comes to the neutrality of the military and that while showing support for a government was acceptable, public support for individuals, like Mr. Hun Sen, was “a little bit problematic.”
“We need a clear law on the involvement of the armed forces and political issues happening in Cambodia,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
“Right now, they are confused with the role of the armed forces and politicians.”
Gen. Banh and other members of the national and military police have spoken out against the opposition party in recent weeks, in addition to declaring support for Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
Asked if neutrality among the armed forces is being compromised, Mr. Sam Oeun said: “Absolutely. You can see that during the election campaign, the generals participated in the election campaign. Even if they are not in uniform, they are still armed forces.”
But National Assembly spokesman Cheam Yeap said the armed forces must follow Mr. Hun Sen’s orders.
“They must be neutral, but they listen to the party who won the votes, and the prime minister,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)