Military, government and ruling party officials on Thursday distanced themselves from deputy military commander Chea Dara’s comments this week that the “army belongs to the Cambodian People’s Party,” insisting that the military remains neutral.
General Dara told a meeting on Wednesday at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office building, the Peace Palace, that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ (RCAF) history under Mr. Hun Sen has led to lasting loyalties.
“Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] said, and I remember this speech on July 23, if we speak correctly, the army belongs to the Cambodian People’s Party because Samdech Techo took care [of the army] and led the army,” Gen. 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.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Gen. Dara was mistaken if he believed that Mr. Hun Sen told the July 23 meeting of military leaders at his bodyguard compound in Kandal province that RCAF’s job was to protect the CPP.
“Hun Sen has never spoken like this, he only said the army belongs to the people and the nation. The army must be neutral between political parties, but the army must defend the legal government that has him as the leader,” Mr. Eysan said.
“The army must not support any parties,” Mr. Eysan added, before declining to comment further on Gen. Dara’s remarks. “This is his case, please do not ask me to analyze his speech, I will not interfere…. He has his own boss.”
Neither Defense Minister Tea Banh nor RCAF Commander Pol Saroeun could be reached for comment Thursday. However, Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said Gen. Dara’s remarks were his own and not reflective of RCAF policy.
“I don’t dare comment on His Excellency Chea Dara’s speech, because that is his idea,” Lieutenant General Socheat said. “On July 23, Hun Sen said that the army must remain neutral for parties, but defend the legitimate government.”
“The army is not neutral in regards to the government. The army must defend the legal government made by election, and not allow anyone to make a ‘color revolution,’” he said. “Any party that wins, the army must defend that government.”
Thun Saray, the president of rights group Adhoc and a civil society leader since the communist 1980s, said Gen. Dara’s remarks were reflective of an institutional understanding inside the military.
“In principle, what he said contradicts Hun Sen’s speech, because Hun Sen said that the military is under the government’s control, not the party’s control. He makes a distinction between party and government,” Mr. Saray said.
“However, Chea Dara, even if he contradicts Hun Sen, he is saying something that corresponds to reality. If you look, the high-ranking members of the armed forces are high-ranking members of the CPP too,” he said.
The CPP’s 34-member standing committee—the executive body of the party—counts among its members Gen. Saroeun, the RCAF commander, as well as Ke Kim Yan, his predecessor. Its central committee includes Kun Kim, another deputy RCAF commander, among many other military leaders.
At the party’s three-day congress in February, the CPP added some 306 new members to its central committee, 80 of whom were members of the military and security forces.
“It comes from the communist practices of the past, when the communist party controlled everything and decided everything, and this is still going on today,” Mr. Saray said.
Son Chhay, a senior opposition lawmaker, said that while the military is still run by old CPP hands trained in the 1980s, he believes younger officers are increasingly interested in a professional military.
“People have been promoted because they have shown allegiance to leaders of the ruling party but many people in the military also want to be more independent, and gain the confidence of the people through doing that,” Mr. Chhay said.
“Many in the army still rely on the ruling party, but they are getting old now. A number of the armed forces have been trained in the West, including the son of the prime minister [Hun Manet], and I think they want to reform the military.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that such loyalties do not exist between military leaders and leaders of the CPP, and that Gen. Dara was simply recalling that the origins of the RCAF were from inside the ruling party.
“What Chea Dara, his excellency the general, means was that he feels the national military has come from the CPP as well as Samdech Techo [Hun Sen]. It was established by Samdech Techo,” he said.
“Secondly, the military also has to pay a lot of attention because the experience after elections is that some groups try to topple the government. So the military has to be alert and know that the CPP, as the majority group in the National Assembly created by the will of the people, must be protected.”
Mr. Siphan insisted that the military would respect an election victory by the CNRP if the opposition party won in February 2018. However, concerns about close ties between the military and the CPP still loom over 2018.
“It is still a risk and a challenge whether there could be a peaceful transition of power,” said Committee for Free and Fair Elections director Koul Panha.
“I do not think that this group of generals [like Gen. Dara] represents all the military, but we do not know about the generals who have a very strong loyalty to the ruling party and who will do whatever they can to protect the ruling party.”
Mr. Chhay, the opposition lawmaker, said that reforming the military to remove loyalties to the CPP was as important as electoral reforms if it comes to a CNRP victory in the next national election, after the remarkably close margin in 2013.
“If we don’t have that, why have elections? Do we want Cambodia to be like Burma, where the people decide on the opposition, and there will be war throughout the country? Will the opposition be arrested?” Mr. Chhay asked.
“This is the most serious question: Will Cambodia be like this?”