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RCAF commander Pol Saroeun speaks at an event on Sunday in Phnom Penh. Facebook
RCAF commander Pol Saroeun speaks at an event on Sunday in Phnom Penh. Facebook

New role for RCAF chief

The commander-in-chief of Cambodia’s ostensibly neutral armed forces, Pol Saroeun, will expand his formal roles within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, taking over as head of its provincial working group in Takeo province following the death last week of deputy prime minister Sok An, who previously held the position.

The CPP’s permanent committee, of which Saroeun is a member, made the decision on March 17, according to a document circulated in local media yesterday.

The news came as a National Election Committee spokesman revealed the ruling party had nominated Sok An’s former cabinet chief and founder of the American University of Phnom Penh, Chea Vandeth, to fill the late minister’s seat for Takeo in the National Assembly.

Saroeun, who is already head of the CPP’s working group in Preah Sihanouk province, was yesterday unreachable, though ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan said the military commander’s former job as governor of Takeo in the 1980s made him well suited for the role.

“He knows about the demography and knows the people, and people like and love him,” he said.

However, his appointment once again raised the issue of the military’s oft-questioned neutrality as well as such appointments’ tendency to lead voters to conflate the state, the armed forces and the ruling CPP, an observer noted yesterday.

The CPP’s “working group” apparatus is a nationwide, thousands-strong network of officials who, depending on their seniority, are assigned a province, district or commune, often in areas where they have family connections.

The groups source funding and deliver infrastructure such as roads, canals, health centres and pagodas on behalf of the party in their respective locales and contribute goods such as rice to residents.

A 2011 study characterised the network as a “mass patronage” system, in which high-ranking officials work with local-level counterparts to draw on informal networks to mobilise cash and manpower to deliver projects, thereby winning votes and bolstering the party’s legitimacy. The groups also function as a venue for officials eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their party superiors.

At a meeting of the Preah Sihanouk working group on March 19, however, Saroeun described the groups’ purpose as helping residents “solve difficulties” while avoiding “impacting their spirit or interests”.

“[Our] continuing work is to strictly control data in all fields across the province to make it easier to control all sectors. [We focus on] three elements – human resources, material and daily information,” said the four-star general, a long-time Hun Sen loyalist, according to a post to his Facebook page.

While the 2011 study notes that the networks are to some degree responsive to local needs, they also give a major electoral advantage to the CPP and blur the lines between the party and the formal state, which is poorly funded by comparison.

The addition of security personnel to the party machine also appears to contravene the 1997 law regulating military personnel, which restricts officers from engaging publicly in politics.

The CPP’s Eysan, however, said yesterday that Saroeun and Defence Minister Tea Banh, who leads the Siem Reap working group, were permitted to work on behalf the ruling party outside of working hours and out of uniform, as per the 2015 Election Law.

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Eysan said. “They do not use the army, their ranks, guns or vehicles to threaten – they speak as citizens.”

Political analyst Chum Bunthet disagreed, insisting that the mixing of the military with politics was troubling – but was nonetheless “the nature of the ruling party”.

“When the military leadership gets involved in that kind of political campaigning more visibly, it’s a threat for Cambodian democracy,” Bunthet said.

“They do this for the last 30 years and it’s normal for them. If their power is threatened, they use any available means to make sure they can maintain their power.”

Meanwhile, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said yesterday the body had received a letter from the CPP nominating Vandeth to replace Sok An as a lawmaker in the National Assembly, which would be sent today to the parliament for approval.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING SHAUN TURTON

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