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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Too many stars in the sky’: For RCAF insiders, the proliferation of generals can be embarrassing

Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces attend an inauguration ceremony in Phnom Penh in 2013.
Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces attend an inauguration ceremony in Phnom Penh in 2013. Pha Lina

‘Too many stars in the sky’: For RCAF insiders, the proliferation of generals can be embarrassing

Bloated and swollen with more than 2,000 generals according to some estimates, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ generous policy with stars is starting to cause headaches, insiders say.

On the heels of the latest round of mass military advancements revealed last month, The Post sought the opinion of several military officials about the armed forces’ approach to career advancement.

While the use of promotions as a tool to secure loyalty to the ruling elite has often been cited as a chief impetus behind the practice, some of the consequences revealed by the interviews are less often reported.

For some young officers, the top-heaviness is a major source of embarrassment, while for some battle-hardened veterans, watching the well-connected rise has led to discontent.

For three Defence Ministry officials – who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of potential repercussions – nothing symbolises the absurdity of the situation more than senior officials reducing their rank when working with counterparts from abroad.

Each of the men attested to the practice, citing specific examples involving their direct superiors, who have not been named to protect the sources’ identities.

“This is common,” said one staffer, who has spent almost a decade within the ministry.

“A general of two stars may take off his stars and become a lieutenant colonel so they can negotiate with their counterpart.”

Put simply, he said, there are two contexts: Cambodia and the world.

In the Kingdom, many seek promotions, whether it is for a salary bump, status, a tool to wield in business or simply to boast on Facebook. But for those who work with regional and international partners, the top-heavy structure leaves them in an awkward position when it comes to balancing roles, responsibilities and traditional ideas of military hierarchy.

For instance, while the director of a Ministry of Defence department in Laos was usually no higher than a lieutenant colonel, he said their Cambodian equivalent usually boasted at least two general’s stars, with a similar discrepancy evident with Thai and Vietnamese counterparts.

“Invitations will sometimes specify the ranks of who should attend for the relevant meeting, so the Cambodian side will be forced to reduce their rank to attend. We feel ashamed, but we have no choice. High-ranking officers also complain.”

A similar story was told by another ministry official, who said his boss had to change from a one-star general to a captain in order to act as a translator for a visiting delegation from a Western country. “This is normal” he said. “I hope it changes. People don’t have much respect for the military, because there are too many stars in the sky.”

* * *

On its own books, the Ministry of Defence currently lists 1,380 generals including 13 four-stars, 208 three-stars, 465 two-stars and 694 brigadiers, according to an internal source, who stressed the number had not been updated in some time. In little over a year, RCAF has added some 500 generals to its top ranks, none of whom would likely be reflected in the first figure.

One source within the diplomatic community estimated the number was about 2,450. Another source in the community believed the number was likely beyond 3,000.

“They just continue to throw out rewards to keep people on the team,” they said.

Defence Ministry officials repeatedly claim promotions are assessed on merit. Meas Sam Ol, head of the department of personnel, which is responsible for promotions, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat yesterday denied officers reduced their ranks when working with counterparts from abroad, saying the numbers of generals was balanced out when senior officers retired or died.

But inflated ranks have long plagued RCAF. Authorities have tried before to trim the unmanageable outgrowth of generals that spurted up like a weed after government and resistance forces integrated in 1993.

According to a Human Rights Watch report from the mid ’90s, plans to streamline the armed forces included slashing the number of generals from 1,800 to 100. By 1995, the number was about 200, the report stated.

One of those generals at the time was Nhek Bun Chhay, who commanded the country’s military under the Funcipec-led government in the ’90s.

Speaking recently, Bun Chhay, now leader of the Khmer National United Party, said numbers began to soar again in the late 2000s. With requests for advancement from units across the country, he said the ministry had a hard time knocking anyone back.

“When one unit sees that another has asked for a promotion, they asked for one, too,” he said, admitting it was a case of quantity but not always quality.

The situation appeared to reach a climax in 2011, when Defence Minister Tea Banh announced a freeze on promotions, conceding there was a gap between some officers’ ranks and their capacity, which, he added, created difficulties when cooperating with other countries.

But despite that edict, advancement was soon continuing apace.

In 2016, 243 new brigadier generals were minted, while dozens more received additional stars. This year, the government has announced that it will automatically advance veterans who have served since 1979, a move insiders say is a clear effort to address disgruntlement among long-serving soldiers frustrated with the rise of scions.

The initiative, which has already seen 256 new general stars handed out, has been spearheaded by the premier’s 39-year-old son Hun Manet, a three-star general and head of the ministry’s anti-terrorism unit.

The latest round of automatic advancements again reinforced the same disconnect between rank and responsibility, according to one lieutenant general, who recalled the circumstances around his most recent promotion last year to make the point.

Though the officer had rarely visited the office the past few years, and had served in the armed forces for less than a decade, he received an unexpected call while riding his motorbike in Phnom Penh offering the advancement.

The “document processing fee” – a bribe paid up the chain to secure a place on the list – was $250, he was told, though the two other Defence Ministry officers spoken to quoted lower figures.

“I was surprised; I had just got a promotion two years before to major colonel,” he said. “It is so fast for me, and it does not seem to align with my age and seniority ... it is eight years – so fast!

“Some people have worked since 1979, but actually, it’s not that surprising. For officers at the ministry, it seems the ranks are inflated. Even the guards are captains.”

* * *

Promotions in the military came under new scrutiny in January when The Post revealed three members of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit who viciously assaulted two opposition lawmakers were promoted after their release from jail.

Though for one member of the bodyguard unit, who requested anonymity, the move was far from surprising.

“In this unit, they find it easy to get promotions; it’s the primary institution for promotions because they protect Samdech Hun Sen,” said the 50-year-old captain, who said he had been passed over for advancement because “I don’t have money to pay them”.

The same discontent was also expressed by a recently retired soldier, Samnang, who said he quit out of frustration. “We sacrificed our body and spirit to work for the armed forces, but we did not have money and connections,” the 55-year-old said.

“Many of my friends have lost their legs or arms or died in the war, but the government has not paid attention to them. They feel hopeless because they see young people with connections and money rising quickly.”

With the government working at raising soldiers’ wages, it remains to be seen whether the recent campaign to shore up support among veterans will be successful.

As the sun set at his farm in Kampong Speu, one 58-year-old major shrugged his shoulders at his recent automatic promotion, which granted him another half-stripe.

For the veteran, who fought for the Khmer Rouge beginning in the early 1970s and defected to the government in the mid 1990s, ranks are now of little importance, he said. “There are many times I should have died. Once a grenade exploded and killed most of my squad,” he said.

“So far as having a big rank or small rank, I do not care. I just care that I have survived.”

Though the officer said he was unconcerned about his status, and now considers himself a farmer, he did take umbrage at the rise of well-connected officers with business ties.

“There are no soldiers who can work like during the war. Now they do not walk, they’re transported around. Before, we walked day and night to reach the location. This is the principle I learned: If you are good at running away [from work], you become a general.

“In our ranks, the head becomes big while the legs are small.”

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