THE Royal Cambodian Armed Forces plans to test-fire 200 BM-21 rockets today in Kampong Chhnang province, a move Prime Minister Hun Sen has described as a normal part of military exercises, but which some observers say could be a show of force directed at Thailand.
Minister of Defence Tea Banh will oversee today’s exercise, ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said Wednesday, adding that officials were looking to determine whether the Russian rockets are still operational.
“We’ve kept them too long. But these weapons were used many times during the Khmer Rouge period,” Chhum Socheat said.
Hun Sen announced the tests during a speech late last month, during which he sought to pre-empt speculation that the move had anything to do with the ongoing border row with Thailand.
“We are not flexing our muscles – this is work to strengthen the abilities of the military in national defence,” Hun Sen said on February 24.
However, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Wednesday he suspected that muscle-flexing was exactly what the government had in mind.
“I think it’s very irresponsible because of the attention we have at the border,” he said, referring to the dispute over land surrounding Preah Vihear temple that intensified after Cambodia’s application to register the ruins as a World Heritage site was approved in July 2008.
“It is probably more the case that this is more about the border conflict.”
He added that he believed the exercises were more likely designed to stir up domestic support for the government rather than to intimidate Thailand.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn declined to comment beyond saying that he hoped Cambodian military officials would keep their Thai counterparts sufficiently informed.
“We have no comment, but we hope that the local military officials have been in contact with each other. That is the normal procedure,” Panitan said.