They come in various shades of green, blue, grey, khaki, black and white. Sometimes with gold trimming and white gloves, or accompanied by body armour. On a typical daily commute a Phnom Penh resident can expect to spot half a dozen or more different uniforms. Even the private security companies and parking attendants all have their own military-style uniforms. And with a three-day CNRP protest under way this week, the troops on the street have been even more numerous than usual.
Don’t worry if you’re confused about who they all are. Cambodia’s security apparatus is just as Byzantine as it seems.
On the one hand you have the civilian police, who fall under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry and have separate public order, judicial, immigration, transport, trafficking and administrative divisions. These are further divided into national, provincial, municipal and commune jurisdictions.
It’s from the police ranks that the government draws its specially trained and heavily armoured “riot squad”.
Then you have the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces which falls under the Ministry of Defence and includes the army, navy, air force and special forces divisions such as the elite Bodyguard Unit and Royal Gendarmerie.
Most commonly seen around Phnom Penh are members of the Royal Gendarmerie – more commonly known as the Military Police – whose powers and responsibilities mirror those of the civilian police and who are sometimes equipped with heavy body armour and used to suppress protests, along with the riot police.
Cambodia’s gendarmerie dates back to 1954 when it was created in the image of the French military police, according to political commentator Lao Mong Hay. It was abolished when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and not reinstated until 1993.
These days the Royal Gendarmerie, better known as the Military Police, is deployed nationally, reports directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen and is reputed to be more loyal than general police and army units.
“It is known that the commander of the military police is our Prime Minister Hun Sen’s man, General Sao Sokha,” Mong Hay said. General Sokha is a former bodyguard and advisor to Hun Sen.
The Royal Gendarmerie’s areas of responsibility are the same as those of the civilian police and include dealing with serious cases of theft, robbery, drug trafficking and terrorism. However, it also has the authority to arrest members of the military and it tends to be better trained and armed than its civilian counterparts. It’s not uncommon for a responsibility between police and military units to overlap, Cambodia-based Global Security Solutions’ managing director John Muller said.
“The best example is the US,” Muller said via email. “After 9/11 police, military, CIA, FBI, etc., finally decided to work together.
“The Cambodian government has extremely limited budgets and figured this out years ago. Unlike Cambodia’s police units which act somewhat independently in each province, military units can take action throughout the nation: anytime, any place.
This is actually a good thing as municipal police have difficulty governing some precincts in upcountry locations. The military helps keep check on these precinct activities doing their best to prevent rogue elements, and unlawful activities.”
However, the military police has been criticised for its at times heavy-handed response to civil protest movements and its presence in the streets labelled “intimidation”.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that the military police would be more useful defending the country’s borders than cracking down on protesting citizens.
He said the presence of so many military police on Phnom Penh’s streets “suppressed the people” and made them fear for their security and safety. He added it showed the country was not truly peaceful and democratic.
“What we have to do is to eliminate corruption, to have respect for people’s rights and also improve the living standards of the people like increase the salary of the workers and also the civil salaries,” he said.
“Not to show the military police standing along the way and threaten the people, I don’t think it’s a good idea at all.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak called for reform of the military police, saying its involvement in civilian issues created as many problems as it solved.
“You have a government that still has a security sector that looks like it was in the civil war period,” Virak said earlier this week.
“It was normal back then [to have the military involved in civil affairs] but they haven’t changed since then and to keep it as if it was a state of war is just irresponsible but also it’s creating a lot more problems for the security sector.”
Virak suggests the government should remove the military’s responsibility for civilian security issues.
He said: “Proper responsibility, equipment and training should be given to the police and [the government should] move to the military to the borders and their bases.”
Military Police spokesman and Brigadier General Kheng Tito said this week that the troops dealing with the CNRP’s rally were instructed to “maintain peace and stability” and that fewer roadblocks would be erected.
Tito added that the law clearly stated that it was necessary that the military police joined with the civilian police in order to maintain security and social order.