Tea Banh Says More Soldiers are Headed for Phnom Penh

Defense Minister Tea Banh on Saturday said he would add some 700 additional soldiers to the ranks of the military’s Phnom Penh-based Brigade 70 next year so the unit can better help local military police quell protests.

Speaking at the brigade’s live-fire training exercise in Kompong Speu province on Saturday, General Banh said that Phnom Penh was experiencing a decline in the number of protests since the height of political and labor unrest in December and January, but said a group of individuals, who he did not name, was still inciting protests in the capital.

“Although the [overall] situation has improved a little…the situation in Phnom Penh is still a problem,” Gen. Banh said. “They go to collect people from here and there, and everywhere there is a land dispute.”

Gen. Banh said military police are unable to handle the influx of protesters, and have asked for help.

“Brigade 70 is in need, so I have agreed to recruit 700 more soldiers in 2015, because this year we have financial constraints,” he said.

Rights groups have criticized both the army and military police for their handling of labor demonstrations in late 2013 and early 2014, during which government forces fatally shot at least seven people, including two bystanders.

The protests erupted at the end of last year after the government set the minimum wage for the country’s garment workers well below its own estimate for a living wage. Concurrent protests led by the opposition CNRP calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation followed a national election widely seen as being skewed in the ruling CPP’s favor.

Gen. Banh said the military had a duty to help prevent a repeat of a July 15 protest that turned violent when opposition supporters retaliated against district security guards, notorious for beating peaceful protesters.

“What reason was there to hit authorities?” he said. “When they shout this and that…it causes turmoil and they [protesters] block the roads. We cannot let the situation go on like this.”

Switching topics, Gen. Banh announced that the military had wrapped up its investigation into a fatal helicopter crash on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in July, concluding that the accident, which resulted in the death of an Air Force deputy commander and three soldiers, was the result of human error.

“The engine and helicopter were fine and did not have any problems,” he said. “The accident happened because we could not operate it [the helicopter] like we wanted to.”

An amateur video of the accident shows the helicopter trying to land, unsteadily rising from a patch of grass and then disappearing over the edge of a flooded sand quarry where it crashed into the water.

The helicopter was one of 13 the government bought from China last year in a deal worth nearly $200 million.

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