The number of four-star generals in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) grew Thursday as 29 former lieutenant generals were promoted at a ceremony in Phnom Penh presided over by Defense Minister Tea Banh, who last month underlined the army’s role as defender of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Reporters were not permitted to attend the event but television crews were allowed to broadcast the ceremony as one secretary of state, 10 undersecretaries of state, and 18 RCAF deputy commanders-in-chief received their promotions at the Ministry of Defense.
Newly promoted Lieutenant General Nem Sowath, director general of the Defense Ministry’s department of policy and foreign affairs, said there was no space to accommodate reporters, stressing the significance of the ceremony for those who he said had dedicated their lives to their country.
“Receiving the advanced rank credits our work in serving the country for a long time, some of us for 30 or 40 years already,” he said, adding that he became a soldier on February 5, 1979—35 years ago this month.
Cambodia’s armed forces have been criticized as already being bloated with far too many generals in a country long at peace.
General Chhum Sucheat, the Defense Ministry spokesman who was also awarded four-stars Thursday, said that the promotions rewarded the abilities and achievements of the generals, and were also based on the needs of the country.
“It is normal for the armed forces to defend the government, and the deputy prime Minister [Tea Banh] sent a message [last month] to all the armed forces to defend our territory, our nation, our religion and our king and to enforce the rule of law,” he said.
Four years ago, in 2010, Mr. Banh announced a moratorium on the number of generals in the armed forces because of the military’s already swollen ranks. RCAF at the time had an estimated 2,200 generals—about 1,500 more than the entire U.S. armed forces, which his the biggest military in the world.
But, in the run-up to July’s disputed national election, the promotion mill began to turn again and many more—including two of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own sons—were promoted to generals.
“We cannot compare the number of generals or promotions with other countries, as this situation is unique to Cambodia,” said Gen. Sucheat, without explaining.
The U.S. Department of Defense, which has only 36 four-star generals all in active service, last year announced it would reduce even that number due to the high salaries and government-funded perks the top brass receives, in an effort to trim its budget due to the winding down of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.