Defense Minister Tea Banh on Thursday said that truckloads of tanks and mounted rocket launchers seen by witnesses leaving the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port in the direction of Phnom Penh would be used to protect the country in the case that someone “tries to destroy the nation.”
Eyewitnesses in Preah Sihanouk province said they saw more than 20 heavily armed vehicles—including at least 16 tanks—at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port being transported by truck up National Road 4 around 4 p.m. Thursday.
The sighting comes amid political deadlock following the disputed July 28 national election, and after armored personnel carriers were moved into Phnom Penh last week, sparking fears of violence should demonstrations break out against the election results.
Asked about the armored vehicles, General Banh said, “You don’t have to wonder, they will not be used to plow the rice fields.
“They will be used to improve the capacity of the national defense and improve the capacity of the armed forces.”
Gen. Banh declined to say when the vehicles were purchased, where they came from, how much they cost the government or where they were going to be kept.
“We bought them from the place where they were made,” he said.
“It is not only Cambodia that does so, other countries also do the same thing [buying arms] to protect the country and improve the capacity of the armed forces,” Gen. Banh said.
“They will not be used to threaten anyone. We will use them to protect the country. They will be used to crack down on anyone who tries to destroy the nation.”
Asked if tanks and rocket launchers had been delivered to Cambodia yesterday, Lou Kim Chhun, director-general of the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, said: “There are special goods that came and I don’t know what they are.”
A 28-year-old man, who asked that his name not be used out of fear for his safety, said he saw 10 BM-21 launch vehicles—a truck mounted with multiple rocket launchers first manufactured by the Soviet Union, but also made by China—and 16 six-axle tanks on flatbed trucks leaving the Sihanoukville port and traveling toward Phnom Penh.
“Each truck had two tanks on it,” he said. “Many people were standing beside the road to watch. I don’t know what they will be used for, but I’m afraid they could use it prevent mass protests.”
Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Sboang Sarath also confirmed that the vehicles had been taken from the port toward Phnom Penh, but dismissed that there was anything unusual about the movement of such military equipment.
“It’s normal. A villa needs a fence to protect it. What if it did not have a fence? A country also needs something to protect it,” he said.
“They will not be used to threaten anyone, they will be used to protect the country,” he said without elaborating on what protection the country currently needs.
Disputing official preliminary election results that show the CPP winning the vote by 68 seats to 55, the opposition CNRP has warned they could call mass demonstrations if an independent investigation is not conducted into alleged irregularities at the polls.
On Monday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government had increased the military presence around Phnom Penh in order to avoid a repeat of the anti-Thai riots that swept the capital in 2003.
Although it is not clear where the vehicles came from, Cambodia’s largest military donor is China. A dozen Chinese military helicopters, part of a multimillion dollar loan deal signed in August 2011, have already begun arriving in Cambodia.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Cheng Hong Bo declined to say if yesterday’s shipment was from China.
“You mean the tanks? I have no information,” Mr. Cheng said when asked about the shipment.
(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis)