When Prime Minister Hun Sen looks to top military leaders like commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun or his deputies, Kun Kim and Meas Sophea, he sees men with whom he has shared four decades of bloodshed, sweat and tears—and an unlikely rise to power.
As young communists, they fled Pol Pot’s purges into the forests, hitching their futures on the invading Vietnamese. They spent the 1980s branded as Hanoi’s puppets by the West, the royal family and today’s opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.
For a decade, they fought a bloody war against U.S.-backed factions that counted Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha among their top officials, before peace let them transition from armed struggle to the accumulation and protection of ostentatious levels of wealth.
So when the military’s top brass publicly promise—as General Kim did in an interview on Monday—that military leaders stand neutral between Mr. Hun Sen and his chief political opponents, it can appear a dubious proposition.
“These are people who shared cigarettes with each other when they had nothing and Cambodia was a pariah state,” said author and academic Sophal Ear of the ruling party’s relationship with the military.
“That kind of bond is basically unbreakable,” he said. “They know they’ve got each other’s backs.”
It’s a history that runs deep, with the comrades seeing their connection as one that transcends everyday concerns, said Mr. Ear, author of the book “Aid Dependence in Cambodia” and an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“That’s why even when they have a car accident with one another, they’ll say ‘knea yeung’ (us) and mean ‘it’s all been agreed upon,’ as one would in the American South,” Mr. Ear said.
The relationship is entrenched by more than just shared histories. Gen. Kim, General Saroeun and General Sophea are also members of the ruling CPP’s powerful 34-member standing committee, alongside Mr. Hun Sen and longtime Defense Minister Tea Banh.
Other deputy commanders of the military, such as Chea Dara and Sao Sokha, commander of the National Military Police, also have their roots in Mr. Hun Sen’s generation of 1979 and also sit on the CPP’s larger central committee.
Gen. Kim is also one of Mr. Hun Sen’s closest advisers, while most of the generals have campaigned for the CPP when elections roll around.
This is all despite the laws governing the military and political parties stipulating that the armed forces must remain politically neutral.
General Dara got himself into hot water last year after declaring in a speech at Mr. Hun Sen’s office building that the military belonged to the CPP because it was established by the CPP, a message he said had been delivered by the prime minister himself.
“I remember this speech on July 23, if we speak correctly, the army belongs to the CPP, because Samdech Techo [Mr. Hun Sen] took care [of the army] and led the army,” Gen. Dara said in July 2015.
“The army belongs to the CPP, but the army also has other duties: to defend the constitutional law, king and the government that was created through elections.”
Gen. Kim last year helped to lead a successful campaign first announced by Mr. Hun Sen to remove Mr. Sokha as National Assembly vice president—as troops rallied for the cause along the Thai border. Pledging neutrality during his interview on Monday with the Fresh News service, Gen. Kim seemed to make little effort to convince listeners of his sincerity.
Members of the military “are neutral only with the parties, but they cannot be neutral with the government and the prime minister, who is the legitimate prime minister voted in by the people,” Gen. Kim said, promising to arrest the opposition leaders if requested.
“If Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy are convicted criminals, they must turn themselves in,” he said. “If there is a request from the courts, we, the armed forces, will guarantee the arrest.”
In any case, Gen. Kim’s steadfast promises to maintain his allegiance to the “legitimate prime minister voted in by the people” is one that the opposition hopes will still bind the army’s hands if the CNRP wins the July 2018 national election.
“As far as I am concerned, when the CNRP wins, I hope he will stand true to what he says,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent opposition official who has long railed against what he perceives as the military’s allegiance to the CPP rather than king.
The prince said that dealing with a CPP-loyal army if the CNRP wins the 2018 election was “part of our everyday discussions,” but declined to comment on specifics, instead warning that top brass like Gen. Kim might find themselves facing insubordination.
“Whether it’s likely or not we will have to see, and we will have to see whether he will engage some units, because I do not think the whole army would follow. I am waiting to see how many units he can lead to fight against the legally elected government,” he said.
The CPP has repeatedly pledged that it would respect an election loss, but many observers remain skeptical that Mr. Hun Sen would simply give up the empire he has built.
On Wednesday, Gen. Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the military, said he could not yet comment on whether generals close to Mr. Hun Sen could conceivably come out in support of a CNRP government if the party won the election in two years.
“For this question, I cannot give an answer now, and this question should not have been asked now, because it’s not time yet,” Gen. Saroeun said, also declining to comment on whether it was difficult for the military to remain neutral when it came to old friends.
“No comment,” the general said. “The army, as usual, is protecting the nation and the motherland.”
Mr. Hun Sen has not hesitated to use the military to support his rule—most notably calling on his loyalists during the July 1997 factional fighting that cemented his power—and alternates pledges of peace and threats of force during his frequent speeches.
However, Lee Morgenbesser, who researches elections under authoritarian regimes at Australia’s Griffith University, said it was unclear whether anything more than the mere threat of the armed forces would ever be needed to cement the CPP’s power.
Managing the results of elections—a task at which the CPP has proven itself adept over the past two decades—was far more useful than outright displays of armed power, he said, as it allowed the military to keep up the pretense of professional neutrality.
“The unacknowledged linchpin of the relationship between the CPP and armed forces occurs on Election Day between when the polls close and when the results are announced,” Mr. Morgenbesser said.
“Once the CPP is quickly declared the winner, this gives the military pretext it needs to claim neutrality and ‘defend’ the rightful government of Cambodia from popular protests and opposition denunciations,” he said.
“The language of neutrality is thus rooted in the outcome of legal, but flawed, elections.”
Mr. Ear, the author, said if the military were ever called upon to cement the CPP’s power by carrying out large-scale suppression, Mr. Hun Sen might find that the loyalty of his top generals does not flow down the ranks.
“It’s not as if the military will mow down its brothers and sisters, its mothers and fathers, in the blink of an eye. Maybe a few brigades can do whatever they are told, but others may not,” Mr. Ear said.
“Why would they? The Cambodian people and the Cambodian military are not separate entities. While you have a lot of senior officers, the soldiers are not robots. They have their own conscience.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)