More than five years after Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a government patronage initiative pairing private companies with military units, Defense Minister Tea Banh led a workshop Wednesday asking companies to keep the money coming.
More than 300 officials from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), national police and representatives of companies and ministries met at the prime minister’s office building to discuss their pledge to help arm, supply and outfit the military.
In an attempt to increase funding to RCAF, Mr. Hun Sen in February 2010 began the program that would see some of the country’s biggest companies donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual army units.
When the initiative launched, 42 companies—many with close ties to the ruling CPP—pledged donations to specific units.
In a speech after Wednesday’s workshop, General Banh reminded at least 10 companies present that the military was still in need of their cash.
“Private companies that do peaceful business in Cambodia, please help the army by giving a small part of your profits,” he said.
Gen. Banh said that much of the donated money would go to increasing soldiers’ monthly salaries, which he said would be raised to 1 million riel, or about $250, by 2018.
“We know we do not have the budget, if we had it we would give it immediately,” he said.
The monthly salaries of RCAF’s lowest-ranking soldiers currently range from 355,000 riel (about $88.75) to 533,000 riel (about $133.25).
According to Gen. Banh, the money collected from the companies would also go toward purchasing food and military supplies.
“In previous times, when we needed materials for the army, some of the companies provided us with money,” he said. “Honestly, [the companies] buy weapons.”
A representative of Metfone, Cambodia’s largest mobile phone provider by subscribers, told the workshop that his company had given substantial funds to Cambodia’s military in recent years.
“From 2010 until 2014, Metfone donated a total of $461,100 to the Ream Naval Base and Navy Brigade 31,” said the representative, who did not give a name.
Metfone is a subsidiary of Viettel, which is wholly owned by the Vietnamese military.
Sok Kong, owner of Sokimex and an ally of Mr. Hun Sen, also sent a representative to tell Wednesday’s meeting that the petroleum company had donated $350,000 to RCAF since 2010.
Contacted later in the day, Mong Reththy, a CPP senator and president of the Mong Reththy Group, said his company had donated substantially to the military over the years. However, he did not provide a concrete figure.
“I donated food supplies to the armed forces along the border in Koh Kong province because I think that they were at the front lines and lack food,” he said.
“I also donated to them because I wanted to connect the private sector with the armed forces, especially because I am just grateful that the armed forces defend our nation.”
Despite the presence of heavy-hitting CPP-friendly businesses at the workshop, which was also presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Man Sam An, Gen. Banh insisted the military was unbiased in how it served the country.
“The armed forces must be neutral toward all political parties,” he said.
However, Deputy RCAF Commander Chea Dara said the military was indeed a steward for the ruling party.
“Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] said, and I remember this speech on July 23, if we said correctly, the army belongs to the Cambodian People’s Party because Samdech Techo took care and led the army,” General Dara said.
“The army belongs to the Cambodian People’s Party…but the army also has other duties: to defend the constitutional law, king and the government that was created through elections,” he added.
Chea Vannath, a political analyst and former president of the Center for Social Development, said the private sector funding of the military would undoubtedly lead to favoritism.
“For sure it will,” she said. “Like in the Khmer saying, you do not bite the hand that feeds you.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)