Cambodia's defence minister lauded a decade of corporate sponsorship of the country’s military, which he said had enabled underfunded units to acquire weapons with the backing of affluent supporters.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policy on the relationship between Cambodia’s powerful tycoons – known as oknhas – and the armed forces and government departments was formalised in a sub-decree passed in February 2010, and has been roundly condemned by rights groups ever since.
But Minister of Defence Tea Banh, speaking at a gathering of hundreds of military officials and business people at the Peace Palace yesterday, said the policy had been a resounding success, as it had unlocked funds for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to purchase weaponry and allowed officers to get a taste for development.
“It is a culture of sharing and contributing to our nation, between civil institutions and RCAF, during a period in which the armed forces have faced difficult living conditions,” he said, without naming the companies that had funded the weapons purchases.
“The issue is that members of the RCAF are not allowed to run businesses, as it is against the law, so the idea of the premier is good and it has been successfully implemented,” he added.
“Seventy-three per cent of our annual budget went to salaries … and the remainder we used to repair barracks, so we don’t have enough money to buy weapons or aircraft,” Banh said.
“We needed hardware, so lots of private companies gave us money to buy weapons. I don’t want to reveal their names.”
According to the 2010 decree, the major sponsors are Pung Kheav Se, owner of Canadia Bank and the Koh Pich Development Company; Kith Meng, head of the Royal Group; and Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, who has interests in sugar plantations and casinos.
Other sponsors include logging baron Try Pheap, CPP Senator Kok An, rubber magnate Mak Kim Hong, Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana, petroleum mogul Sok Kong, and tycoons Lao Meng Khin and Choeung Sopheap.
Foreign firms are also known to have established military-commercial alliances with RCAF units, such as China’s Unite Group, which sponsors Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit.
Companies represented at yesterday’s event, however, made no mention of large cash payments for weapons, instead referring to small projects to dig wells and minor agricultural investments.
Banh said that the policy had only begun to gain popularity around the time of the border clashes with Thailand over the Preah Vihear Temple in 2008, when numerous business people came forward with donations.
Hun Manet, commander of the 911 Airborne Brigade’s counter-terrorism unit, which receives training from US special forces and is sponsored by Phan Imex owner Suy Sophan, said the list of companies engaged in sponsorship arrangements had grown from the original 42 to more than 100.
General Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, said the military’s role was to secure the position of the ruling CPP, alluding to a speech by Banh earlier this week in which he said the military would intervene against alleged attempts to foment revolution.
“A colour revolution will absolutely not be allowed. If it happens, we will not need to use BM-21 [rocket launchers] or tanks, we’ll just use sticks,” he said.
Josie Cohen, senior campaigner at corruption monitor Global Witness, said that the military had repeatedly protected the private business interests of its sponsors, often using violence and forced evictions.
“Over the past five years, we have seen repeated human rights abuses committed by military units protecting the interests of private companies, particularly in the land sector.
The government should scrap this sponsorship program and the broader corporate-military nexus it reinforces,” she said.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party MP Son Chhay, who is the deputy head of parliament’s Finance Commission, said that yesterday’s gathering showed that the CPP had “declared that the army belongs to them, which is contrary to our constitution”.
“It’s going to be a real danger to our stability. When the army takes sides and becomes involved in politics, this is where the trouble starts,” he said.
“I think the majority of the armed forces think they are the army of the nation. But a number of senior military [officials] who have gained their positions through the party have been thinking that they must support the party. But these people are retiring now – they are getting old.”