All tanks deployed to the Thai border in Preah Vihear have been ordered to return for repairs at bases around and near Phnom Penh, according to Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat.
“I don’t know where they went to in Phnom Penh, but they have orders to go for maintenance; all of the tanks on the front line,” Socheat said, adding they were destined for bases surrounding Phnom Penh and in Kampong Speu to the capital’s southwest.
Socheat denied the movements, which have been widely followed on social media, were in response to recent political developments. “People should be happy that they’re leaving the battlefield; it shows our country is in harmony,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Nonetheless, the sight of tanks passing through the capital has caused a stir among residents. “We were shocked to see tanks moved into Phnom Penh and we don’t know why,” motodop Sam Oeun said yesterday.
“We’re confused as to why they brought tanks at the same time that the political situation is getting tense. One of my friends is a soldier in Preah Vihear and asked whether there was some kind of chaos in Phnom Penh with the tanks being brought back.”
Socheat previously said the tanks were being withdrawn from the Thai border in Preah Vihear in response to the de-escalation of tensions with Cambodia’s neighbour.
He also confirmed on Sunday that some troops were also being recalled from the border, among them members of the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit.
National security analyst Long Kim Khorn said the troop movements could be strategic.
“Maybe the government is concerned with national security so they moved the tanks so they can have military equipment on hand to protect the city or respond to demonstrations,” Kim Khorn said, referencing upcoming voter registration for next year’s commune elections and the anticipated release of the results of the official investigation into Kem Ley’s murder.
Regional analyst Carl Thayer said in an email yesterday that there was a precedent for the recalling of troops and hardware to the capital in times of tension.
“There were roughly similar displays of military force following the outbreak of civil unrest after the 2013 Cambodian national elections,” Thayer wrote. “This sort of military display was a staple for military dictatorships in Thailand that either threatened to conduct a coup or put on a show of force to prevent a coup.”
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at rights group Licadho, yesterday called on the government to explain why “a significant number of military tanks, soldiers and weaponry are being brought to Phnom Penh since last Monday”.