Prime Minister Hun Sen bragged yesterday about importing “thousands or tens of thousands” of tonnes of weaponry overnight in the run-up to a major joint military exercise with China.
“Samdech Tea Banh, the minister of defence, he does not transport flowers,” the premier said to an audience of nearly 18,000 factory workers in Kampong Speu province. “He transports bullets and guns.”
The prime minister later said the trucks contained “huge ordnance” but did not specify what they were for.
However, ministry spokesman Chum Socheat confirmed the equipment is for the so-called Golden Dragon military exercises in mid-March. Nearly 300 Cambodian troops are expected to attend the exercises, first conducted in 2016, alongside several hundred Chinese soldiers.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he did not have information about the weapons, but said countries have the right to possess “enough ammunition to protect our sovereignty as well as our territory”.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand, said Hun Sen’s bravado was unsurprising as he seeks to build a “militarised sense . . . of ultra-nationalism” in the run-up to the national elections.
“Such a policy is simply going to increase Cambodia’s isolation and dependence upon China while Hun Sen increasingly rules with an iron hand,” Chambers said in an email.
The premier’s remarks came as the government quietly disclosed it diverted $4.5 million from the surplus budget to the Ministry of Interior in December to purchase nine types of “riot equipment”.
The sub-decree, signed by Hun Sen, did not specify what the types of equipment were. When reached yesterday, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak directed questions to National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith, who said he was busy and hung up.
San Chey, country director of the good governance NGO Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said the money would have been better allocated to combating illegal gambling, theft and drug addiction.
“I don’t think demonstrations will be happening again in Cambodia while the opposition is dissolved,” Chey said, referring to the forced dissolution of the ruling party’s only legitimate competitor, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
According to Phnom Penh City Hall, there were more than 1,700 protests, strikes and demonstrations last year – a slight increase from 2016 – although previous municipal statistics have shown discrepancies with national numbers.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the purchase of riot gear suggested the government is nervous about the upcoming elections. “After weakening the opposition party, it seems that they did not gain a huge benefit because support for the CNRP has not budged,” Nee said. “Therefore the government must be worried that there could be a problem during the election.”