Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday announced the formation of a “new” infantry brigade in Stung Treng and the deployment of naval assets to the province following recent border frictions with Laos in the area.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat, however, later explained that existing troops would staff the announced brigade, and claimed the moves were not in response to any threats posed by Lao troops, declaring the recent flare-up was “solved”.
Dressed in a military uniform displaying his five-star general rank, the premier revealed the plans while visiting soldiers in the province, where long-running border tension culminated on Friday with an ultimatum to Laos to withdraw troops and the brief deployment of two Cambodian brigades to the northern boundary.
“The arrangements are not aimed at launching a war against neighbouring countries, but aimed at defending the nation, people and keeping good relations with the neighbouring countries,” a post on Hun Sen’s Facebook page stated.
Socheat said the brigade, to be called Brigade 128, will comprise soldiers already serving within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Brigades traditionally include a minimum of 1,500 soldiers, plus support staff, though RCAF’s ranks have long been plagued by “ghost soldiers”, who remain on the books but don’t serve actively.
“The new brigade will be a mobile unit in the region,” said Socheat, who declined to give further details about where the men would be drawn from.
The brigade will be placed under the commander of Military Region 1, which covers Stung Treng, but could also be deployed to Preah Vihear, the spokesman said.
Preah Vihear falls under Military Region 4 and was the site of armed clashes over disputed territory with Thailand between 2008 and 2011.
While that conflict has remained relatively dormant in recent years, friction with Laos had built over the past year or so before coming to a head on Friday.
Lao troops, who were camped south of the Sekong River in Stung Treng’s Siem Pang district since April, were blocking Cambodian military engineers from moving forward with a border-side road project.
However, they withdrew on Saturday following a joint press conference in Laos, where Hun Sen and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith vowed to finish fully demarcating the northern boundary.
Officials have yet to say when construction on the road will continue, though access to the remote area remains difficult during wet season.
The addition of a naval presence in Stung Treng, comprising between 20 and 30 naval officers with “some” small speedboats, would enable the military to keep the contested area supplied, said Navy Commander Tea Vinh by phone yesterday.
Paul Chambers, of the College of Asean Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the sudden flare-up of a conflict against a neighbour with “no formidable army” allowed the premier to present himself as the protector of Cambodia. Yesterday’s announcement continued this theme, he said.
“His visit to Stung Treng and establishment of a new brigade serves first to gain more support among voters who support his nationalist grandstanding; and second, to ensure that Cambodian military units near the border are personally loyal to him alone,” Chambers said via email.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton