Seven hundred new troops will be added early next year to Cambodia’s notorious Brigade 70, a military unit with a history of allegations against it ranging from political assassinations to protecting illegal timber traders, according to an announcement signed last month by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The decision, which has raised concerns about possible future violent crackdowns, was signed off on September 17.
This month’s Royal Book states that 1,050 people will be recruited – 700 as soldiers of Brigade 70 and 350 as personnel of the Bodyguard Unit of the general command – starting in January.
The “minister in charge of the Council of Ministers; Ministers of Defence; Economics and Finance; [and the] General Commander-in-Chief of [the] Royal Cambodian Armed Forces have agreed to implement the decision from January 1, 2015,” the statement reads.
Defence Minister Tea Banh could not be reached for comment yesterday. But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the huge new intake would not affect numbers of military personnel.
“The reason the government has agreed to recruit more than 1,000 soldiers is because staffers and soldiers of the Ministry of Defence are reaching retirement age, so we need replacements,” he said.
Countless allegations have been levelled against Brigade 70 since its inception 20 years ago, including claims of murder, fatal crackdowns and political arrests, which critics say were carried out with impunity.
A 2007 report by environmental organisation Global Witness accused the unit of running a logging and contraband trafficking operation worth more than $2 million a year.
“Brigade 70 is trusted by Hun Sen and Cambodia’s other senior leaders to do their bidding without question, even when that involves wholescale violation of human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, in an email.
“Clearly, adding more troops means that those leaders like what Brigade 70 is doing, whether that means pushing people off of their land, cracking down on striking workers, or intimidating people who dare question how Cambodia is governed.
“It’s a politically motivated unit that serves no purpose other than to preserve Hun Sen and the top leaders of the CPP in power, and to intimidate their opponents.”
Political analyst Kem Ley said that while armed forces were “essential” for the protection of any country, the latest intake should be put to the right use.
“They should not recruit them just to crack down on demonstrations. They have to recruit them to protect the borders and the security of the country,” he said.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said he didn’t know why the government was recruiting, “because when we look at the forces in the country, we do not need more”.
In 2011, about 5,600 soldiers retired from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces [RCAF], and 4,805 retired the following year as part of a government effort to improve its military.
Brigade 70, which used to include Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, has been used to crack down on multiple demonstrations over the past 20 years.
“The 1997 law on RCAF allows for the deployment, ‘in necessary circumstances,’ of army and other military units in defense of ‘public security.’
“The legislation does not define either the necessary circumstances or what is meant by public security, leaving it open to elastic and arbitrary application,” Robertson said.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said he was “not at all surprised” that the government had signed off on the extra recruits, adding that the decision was likely made so they could quash any uprisings and as a means of strengthening the ruling party’s grip on power.
“It’s about the power struggle. The CPP is talking about this as a way of keeping power.… They are using the military as a scare tactic,” he said. “This is how they run the show.”