This week, three members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) were charged in the October 26 assault of two opposition lawmakers outside of parliament following a pro-CPP protest. The military ranks and units of the trio have not been revealed. Audrey Wilson spoke with Carl Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia defence and a professor at the University of New South Wales, about the historic link between the Cambodian military and the CPP, potential outcomes of the charges in court and a culture of impunity in the Kingdom
Were you at all surprised by the link between those charged over the assault on opposition lawmakers and the Cambodian military?
The connection between members of the Bodyguard Unit and the honorary president of the CPP youth group allegedly involved in the assault on CNRP deputies comes as no surprise. The military is under the control of Hun Sen and his CPP, and the CPP draws on its Leninist tutelage by Vietnam in the 1980s. The party controls the military and the military is the strong arm of the party. There is an overlap between party and military functions. They are dual-role elites, simultaneously members of the CPP and the military.
While the military ranks and units of the trio have not been revealed, a connection has been drawn between the youth group involved in the protest and the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit. What do you think the significance would be if the perpetrators were in fact members of the PM’s Bodyguard Unit?
If the perpetrators were members of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, this would establish a direct line to the chain of command headed by Hun Sen. It would dissolve the smokescreen that the perpetrators were members of a separate youth group.
Can you speak on the history of the military’s relationship with the CNRP? Do you believe the RCAF holds a sense of allegiance to the CPP, and, if so, how explicitly does it operate?
According to the Cambodian Constitution, Cambodia is supposed to be a liberal democracy. If this were the case, the military would be under the direct control of civil authority and would not play a political role. In classical civil-military theory, this is known as objective control. But in Cambodia’s case, the CPP control the military. The top military members are members of the party. This is known as subjective control. The military is loyal to the Hun Sen regime and not to the abstract notion of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Those charged with the assault claim to have been provoked, and Hun Sen in a speech on Thursday seemed to agree with their claim. Do you believe the men who are charged will be convicted?
I am surprised that the alleged assailants were arrested. The use of social media may have forced the regime’s hand. In this highly politically charged atmosphere, any result is possible. If the defence makes the argument that the perpetrators were provoked, they could well get off with little but a slap on the wrist. This is what I would expect.
In regards to the RCAF, do you believe there is a culture of impunity that exists here in Cambodia? How do you think this incident will fit in?
A leopard can’t change its spots. Hun Sen is no liberal democrat. This current upsurge in violence is extremely worrisome because it negates the positive developments between the CPP and CNRP, such as the return of the CNRP to the National Assembly and the agreement on new electoral arrangements. This incident may indicate that some within the CPP feel that too many concessions have been made to the opposition. It is also typical of Hun Sen to intimidate and humiliate his opponents. This recent upsurge in politically motivated violence is a clear sign that the culture of impunity is alive and well in Cambodia.