Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Many hues of Cambodia’s might




Many hues of Cambodia’s might

Deployed in protective armour to maintain security during this week’s protests, members of Cambodia’s Royal Gendarmerie sit in front of the statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Deployed in protective armour to maintain security during this week’s protests, members of Cambodia’s Royal Gendarmerie sit in front of the statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Nick Street

Many hues of Cambodia’s might

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.

A member of the civilian justice police, identifiable by his insignia of a set of scales balanced on a knife, guards one of the razor wire barricades which have become a bone of contention with protesters and Phnom Penh residents.
A member of the civilian justice police, identifiable by his insignia of a set of scales balanced on a knife, guards one of the razor wire barricades which have become a bone of contention with protesters and Phnom Penh residents. Hong Menea

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.

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces personnel dressed in standard army fatigues.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces personnel dressed in standard army fatigues. Pha Lina

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.

Military police, out of riot gear with their distinctive black armbands, take a breather in between shifts.
Military police, out of riot gear with their distinctive black armbands, take a breather in between shifts. TRACY SHELDON

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 traffic police – who wear light blue uniforms and white helmets – are sometimes armed with shotguns but normally just wield clubs and whistles.
The traffic police – who wear light blue uniforms and white helmets – are sometimes armed with shotguns but normally just wield clubs and whistles. Sovan Philong

“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.

Military police taking part in a UN peacekeeping mission hold the light blue beret of the UN forces.​
Military police taking part in a UN peacekeeping mission hold the light blue beret of the UN forces.​

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.

Civilian riot police, who tend to wear less body armour than their military police counterparts, train ahead of protests.
Civilian riot police, who tend to wear less body armour than their military police counterparts, train ahead of protests. Vireak Mai

“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.”

The highly trained and well-equipped Prime Minister’s Personal Bodyguard Unit (PMBU) has responsibility for protecting Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The highly trained and well-equipped Prime Minister’s Personal Bodyguard Unit (PMBU) has responsibility for protecting Prime Minister Hun Sen. Heng Chivoan

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • School reopening to be postponed until November

    Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron on Tuesday wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting a delay of school reopening across the Kingdom until November, when the new academic year begins. In his letter, Chuon Naron said the postponement is warranted to avoid the new

  • Foreigners in Kingdom must now register in FPCS system

    The Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) announced that it would not grant visa extensions to foreigners staying in Cambodia if their names are not listed on the Foreigners Present in Cambodia System (FPCS) by July 1. Foreign nationals can register in the

  • Covid-19 at ‘alarming rate’, health ministry says

    The Covid-19 risk level for individual transmission is at an “alarming rate” in the Kingdom and its probability is “not low”, warned Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine. “Cambodia’s coronavirus scenario is classified as being at an early stage of the pandemic because of ongoing

  • Mandatory quarantine for 30,000 workers begins

    Some of the roughly 30,000 workers from factories and enterprises across the Kingdom who went on leave during Khmer New Year began their government-imposed 14-day quarantine on Monday. Speaking at a press conference while visiting workers at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Monday, Ministry

  • Unemployed to get $40 per month

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has instructed enterprises, business owners and travel agencies in five provinces to prepare the proper forms for the suspension of employment contracts. This, it said, will make it easier for the ministry to transfer $40 a month to workers

  • Gov’t travel ban flouted

    While the majority of Cambodians have paid heed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to stay put and not travel during the Khmer New Year – the holidays of which were also postponed – several hundred have left Phnom Penh nonetheless. They have allegedly breached provincial

  • G20 energy ministers struggle to finalise oil output cuts

    Top oil producers struggled to finalise production cuts during a virtual summit held by Group of 20 (G20) energy ministers on Friday, despite US President Donald Trump’s mediation efforts to end a standoff with Mexico. The final G20 communique appeared to gloss over simmering divisions

  • Kingdom revises travel restriction order

    The government on Friday eased the district and provincial border restrictions issued on Thursday. People are now allowed to cross districts within their provinces. Phnom Penh and Kandal province are to be treated as a single region where people are allowed to travel freely. In

  • Private schools struggling

    The Cambodian Higher Education Association has claimed that 113 private educational establishments are facing bankruptcy because of their inability to pay rent and staff salaries in light of nationwide school closures caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. It said the financial trouble started when the Ministry of

  • Khmer New Year holidays postponed

    In an effort to halt Covid-19 infections in the Kingdom, Prime Minister Hun Sen has postponed the Khmer New Year holidays scheduled from April 13 to 16. While the people will not have their usual break, nor will there be any public celebrations or gatherings at pagodas,