The Ministry of Defense released a statement Wednesday condemning an opposition party spokesman for allegedly “looking down on” Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and the armed forces.
The statement, dated Tuesday, attacked CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann for comments made to the media on January 23, in which he referred to the current CPP government as “illegal” and added that “troops that serve the illegal government are also illegal.”
“The Defense Ministry denies and absolutely condemns words that look down on and discredit the reputation of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces,” the statement said.
“Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry appeals to both officers and rank-and-file soldiers of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces [RCAF] to please continue to be patient with the demeaning words used by Mr. Yim Sovann about the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.”
Mr. Sovann’s remarks were made in response to news that CPP Defense Minister Tea Banh had called on troops to defend Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP government in its ongoing dispute with the CNRP over the outcome of last year’s national election.
Tuesday’s Defense Ministry statement also said that the July 28 election had been held democratically and “in a free, fair and transparent manner,” and that the CPP had legitimately won 68 parliamentary seats.
“RCAF’s troops must absolutely defend the Constitution and defend the legal government that was elected by the legal National Assembly,” the ministry statement adds.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sovann defended his comments, saying that they had been directed toward “a handful of military leaders who ordered the killing of people” in early January, when five striking garment factory workers were killed and dozens of others were injured by military police outside the Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sovann also questioned why the Defense Ministry had issued a statement seemingly in support of the CPP.
“The armed forces must be neutral, according to the law. They cannot be biased toward any party,” he added.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that recent Defense Ministry statements in support of the government were problematic, demonstrating that there is no clear distinction between the army and Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling party.
In December, General Banh instructed troops to brush up on their history in order to avoid being taken in by information peddled by the CNRP. And last week, during a meeting of military police, Gen. Banh called on the armed forces to defend the CPP government and accused the CNRP of trying to create chaos.
“The armed forces are supposed to be neutral, not an arm of the CPP, Hun Sen or any other entity or person,” Mr. Adams said in an email.
“Tea Banh’s statement that the army should remain loyal to Hun Sen is completely inappropriate and makes it clear that he thinks RCAF is Hun Sen’s military, not that of the country.”
Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that armed forces were sworn to defend the legal government, no matter what party was in power.
“We do not discriminate between the Cambodian People’s Party or the opposition party,” he said.