Saying he wants to concentrate on reform and reducing poverty, Prime Minister Hun Sen officially stepped down as commander in chief of the military Thursday in a ceremony at the Ministry of Defense.
Hun Sen turned over his post to Army Chief of General Staff Ke Kim Yan, whom he promoted to four-star general before stepping down.
“This marks a step in political reform in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Hun Sen said. “The maturity of leadership, management and wisdom of our officers are now adequate that there is no longer a need for direct command of the prime minister.”
He said he had come to the decision to step down on his own.
“To be quite frank, no one could by any means strip or demote me from the ranks,” he said.
Hun Sen had been sole commander in chief since July 1997, when forces loyal to him ousted coalition partner Prince Norodom Ranariddh as both co-premier and co-commander in chief. Hun Sen said Thursday with the defections of most of the last of the Khmer Rouge, he was no longer needed at the helm of the army.
“My leaving from the position as commander in chief of the national armed forces of Cambodia is to focus my time and energy on social and economic development that is the top priority to fight against poverty,” Hun Sen said.
He then called for Ke Kim Yan to reform the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, including cracking down on commanders’ reputed involvement in illegal logging.
“All means must be used, including the use of military, against businessmen who operate illegal businesses in Cambodia. This operation must be successfully completed within three months, at the longest,” he said.
He said any soldiers involved in illegal activities should lose their rank. “If they are not punished by the court of law, at least they should be removed from their positions so that they can no longer use their influences to continue to comment offenses.”
Ke Kim Yan promised he would do his best. “The resignation as commander in chief by Samdech Hun Sen is a good gesture for showing reform in RCAF policy,” Ke Kim Yan said.
Hun Sen’s resignation is part of a larger reshuffle of the RCAF.
At Thursday’s ceremony, co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh also relinquished his military rank. Tea Banh was a four-star general. Hun Sen was the only five-star general.
Royal decrees read by Council of Ministers official Sok An on Thursday divided RCAF into three areas, each answerable to Ke Kim Yan. Pol Saroeun, an RCAF deputy chief of general staff, was named deputy commander in chief of the combined forces.
Hun Sen’s close military adviser, General Meas Sophea, was named commander of the army. Meas Sophea, who oversaw negotiations of the final Khmer Rouge defections, had been an RCAF deputy chief of general staff. He now shares the rank of deputy commander in chief with generals Pol Saroeun, Khann Savoeun and Khem Sopoan.
General Um Samkhan was named commander of the Marines and General Seung Samnang was named commander of the Air Force.
Reform of the military and civil service, reduction of rampant logging and a shift in spending priorities from security to social issues have all been high on the list of concerns by donor nations, who have warned that corruption and deforestation could leave the country in economic shambles.
Donors are expected to pledge the next aid programs at next month’s Consultative Group meeting in Tokyo.
Cynics have speculated that Hun Sen’s stepping down from the military and recent, visible crackdowns on logging are mere window-dressing designed to woo donors.
One Phnom Penh-based diplomat said that while Hun Sen’s speech Thursday was “very forceful,” most donors have heard such promises before.
“There has been a lot said by the government in the past few months, and it is hitting all the right points in the donors’ eyes,” the diplomat said. “I think everybody is looking to see what happens in practice.”
He added that he hopes the government this time is serious about reform—for its own sake. “Taking action is much more important to Cambodia than it is to the donor community.”