Cambodia's military is politically neutral, except for when it’s not. This was no more evident than on Saturday in Svay Rieng province, where National Military Police commander Sao Sokha led a pre-election-campaign event for the Cambodian People’s Party.
With the June 4 commune elections now only a little more than five months away, Sokha sat between large CPP banners and hundreds of local villagers as he presided over the selection of a new commune chief candidate in Ream commune and pushed the party’s platform.
Not so long ago, Sokha’s military police forces shot dead five people and injured at least 40 more at a protest by garment workers on the capital’s Veng Sreng Boulevard, an action that ended months of demonstrations against the results of the disputed July 2013 national election.
In many other democracies, a man in such a position might strive hard to avoid any image of partisanship, even if privately he did prefer one party to another. But such discretion is unnecessary in Cambodia, according to CPP spokesman Sok Eysan.
“Other democratic countries, that is their democratic business, but Cambodia is democratic for the country of Cambodia, so what we implement is in compliance with Cambodian laws,” Eysan said, explaining that nothing prevents armed forces members from campaigning for the CPP as private citizens.
“[It] does not impact the neutrality of the armed forces, because they go down there in their capacity as individuals. The law allows that,” he said, referring to changes made to elections laws in 2015 that allow armed forces members to campaign when off-duty.
“They can work in politics outside their main working hours,” Eysan said.
Yet military generals in other democracies are often extremely careful about protecting a reputation of political neutrality, and ensuring that they are only ever viewed as leaders of a force that serves the whole nation rather than a particular party.
Sokha could not be reached for comment about his political activities yesterday, and National Military Police commander Eng Hy declined to comment on whether he believed his boss was acting inappropriately by leading election events for the ruling party.
“I am the spokesman for the military police. For the party, ask the party,” Hy said. “Please, separate clearly between the party and the military police.”
It is not always so easy to make such a separation in Cambodia, though. When Sokha is not commanding the military police, or serving as deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, he sits on the CPP’s central committee, a body stacked with military and police officials.
His boss, RCAF commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun sits on the CPP’s more select and powerful standing committee – the old communist Politburo – along with two of his other deputy commanders-in chief, Kun Kim and Meas Sophea, and his predecessor, Ke Kim Yan.
It has led to concerns from civil society that the army – with its leaders so entwined with the CPP – might not stomach a victory for any party other than their own, even as the military’s leaders themselves insist they will remain neutral and defend any legitimately elected government.
Koul Panha, executive director of local elections monitor Comfrel, said he could not understand how the military could make such claims of neutrality, then have its top officials in leadership positions inside the CPP and running the party’s campaign events.
“It discredits the political neutrality of the armed forces,” Panha said, adding that it harmed the CPP, too.
“It does not look good in terms of the political image for a party to be engaging with the military. It causes anxiety, but I think now people understand this, and they will blame them for it,” he said. “Especially young people, they will blame them and discredit the party, because you cannot show the public that you are using the military for your party.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said that because it had for so many years been evident that the military’s leadership was another wing of the CPP, the opposition no longer bothered to complain when people like Sokha campaigned for the party.
“It’s not OK, but who cares?” Sovann said. He said he believed the CPP’s popularity had fallen so dramatically it did not matter if generals showed their political views ahead of the June elections.
“No one cares anymore. We have stopped thinking about the [state] institutions, as they are fully controlled by the CPP,” Sovann said.
“Whatever they are doing, let them do it, and we will do our job. We just go to the grassroots, and we meet with the people – and wait for the final decision on June 4.”