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Soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Air Force watch their new Z-9 helicopters in the sky during a ceremony marking the handover of the aircraft from China
Soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Air Force watch their new Z-9 helicopters in the sky during a ceremony marking the handover of the aircraft from China yesterday in Phnom Penh. AFP

Helicopters to ‘protect’ government

As political deadlock continues, Minister of Defence Tea Banh yesterday used the unveiling of 12 Chinese-made military helicopters to announce that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces stand “ready to protect” the government and constitution, following what he called “free and fair” elections in July.

Speaking in the presence of the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Bu Jianguo, at a ceremony to show off the Z-9 helicopters – acquired as part of a $195 million deal with China inked in 2011 – Banh said the current one-party National Assembly had legitimacy and thus the support of the military.

“The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are ready to protect the Kingdom’s constitution and the government,” he said, adding that the elections had been conducted fairly, and China had congratulated the Cambodian People’s Party on its victory.

Banh did not say, however, what he envisaged that protection could be – or what the constitution and government might need protecting from.

The helicopters, he stated, would “strengthen the capacity for protection of sovereignty” and be used to “crack down on offences”, including cross-border smuggling. He also added that the Z-9s would help combat natural disasters.

Banh also talked up relations between the two countries, pledging support to its ally’s “One China Policy”.

He could not be reached by phone later to elaborate on his comments.

Also speaking at the event, Bu said she believed the helicopters would help strengthen RCAF’s capacity to provide emergency relief.

“China will continue to support Cambodia’s economic development … and [will] continue to maintain a fresh relationship,” she said.

Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua said she could not speculate on whether the defence minister’s vow to protect the constitution and government were meant as a warning to the opposition and its supporters, who have staged several mass demonstrations since the July 28 ballot.

“I don’t think the people and the CNRP are even concerned about [that],” she said. “But as far as we’re concerned, [the election] was not free and fair.”

Sochua added that she could not understand why the government spent so much time talking about protecting the country when issues in sectors such as health and education needed addressing.

“Where’s the threat?… How much more does Cambodia need to defend [itself]?”

The opposition has now spent more than two months boycotting the National Assembly, after winning 55 of 123 seats at July’s election. In that time, CPP lawmakers have approved a $3.4 billion national budget as a one-party assembly.

Political analyst Kem Ley said yesterday that rather than speaking of protecting the Constitution, the ruling party itself needed to ensure it wasn’t violating it.

“The people are moving toward democracy and the government is moving back to communism,” he said. “To do that, they must strengthen their armed forces … to continue to run the country without rule of law.

“But the people are not concerned about their military nature. The CPP must … strengthen rule of law if it wants to get its popularity back.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

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