Cambodia’s Well-Heeled Military Patrons

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s Well-Heeled Military Patrons

Could a privately funded army break down into militias and turn on itself?

Cambodia’s Well-Heeled Military Patrons
Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Cambodia has struggled in the aftermath of three decades of war, with 17 years of troubled peace marred by political killings, dubious elections, and a litany of human rights violations that have cast doubts over the political process.

A population bubble and high crime rates have also reshaped the urban landscape, where residents live behind high fences laced with razor wire, windows are barred, and three padlocks on the front gate is not unusual.

It’s a recipe of constant pressures.

Despite this unflattering backdrop, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Defense Minister Tea Banh have offered each other a pat on the back for ensuring national security and the undeniable economic growth that came with Cambodia’s very flawed peace train.

Importantly, the pair insisted it was the rebuilding and restoration of pride in the country’s military by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that made their boast possible.

The occasion was the fifth anniversary of an unprecedented sponsorship deal, which formalized a relationship between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the country’s powerful business tycoons, known by their official title as “oknha.”

“We needed hardware, so lots of private companies gave us money to buy weapons. I don’t want to reveal their names,” Tea Banh told hundreds of RCAF officials who gathered in the capital’s Peace Palace to toast the five-year-old deal.

Broke and Broken

Ou Virak, political analyst and founder of the local think-tank The Future Forum, said the current security regime is a result of the war years, when three of the main military factions registered as political parties but made no effort to integrate their respective fighting forces.

“The mentality of the CPP is that the military that has occupied power ever since is that of the CPP. That mentality continues. There has been no real effort to either demilitarize Cambodia’s politics or truly nationalize the military,” he said.

As a result, he said “the CPP – seeing that the military is going to continue to benefit them – has sought ways to strengthen their loyalty and their power”.

Bloated with personnel, badly run, and ill-equipped, the RCAF was engaged in a border conflict with Thailand, which erupted in 2008 after Bangkok ordered its troops to cross into Cambodia and occupy territory around the ancient temples of Preah Vihear, an area recognized in international law as Cambodian for more than a century.

It’s a sore point for Thai nationalists who’d like to re-write border treaties. Their actions resulted in 85 people killed and another 205 wounded. It also highlighted the inadequacies confronting a cash-strapped government that complained it could not afford a bed for each soldier at $30 a head.

“Seventy-three per cent of our annual budget went to salaries,” Tea Banh said.

The donor-dependent Cambodian government passed a sub-decree enshrining the oknha-RCAF relationship into law in February 2010. Oknhas could donate to units in exchange for security to protect their business interests.

In most countries sponsorship and patronage are reserved for sports and the arts, not the armed forces. The Cambodian deal to carve-up and privately fund RCAF confounded the critics. It was made worse by a long line of bureaucrats who failed to articulate what the government was trying to do.

According to local media reports from five years ago one official described the deal as “not quite an alliance” and compared it with sister city relationships. Authorities were also quick to note that RCAF personnel were not allowed to go into business or be hired out.

“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,” Tea Banh told the assembled.

For instance, Khaou Phallaboth, president of Khaou Chuly Group, gave $100,000 in 2010 which bought rice, mosquito nets and secured water supplies. Mong Reththy, CPP senator and head of the group that bears his name, told one scribe the deal was an “Oknha Alliance With the Frontline Soldiers.”

More recently, Hun Manet, son of the prime minister and commander of the 911 Airborne Brigade’s counter-terrorism unit, told The Phnom Penh Post that the list of companies engaged in sponsorship arrangements had now risen to more than 100, from an initial 42.

His unit is sponsored by Suy Sophan, owner of Phan Imex.

The Phnom Penh Post has also obtained an extensive list of Cambodian businessmen, senators and foreign companies with ties to the RCAF.

More prominent names include the sugar baron Ly Yong Phat, CEO of the Royal Group Kith Meng, and China’s Unite Group, which sponsors Hun Sen’s elite Bodyguard Unit.

Additionally, the Chinese government has emerged as the RCAF’s chief benefactor as it seeks out strategic allies amid confrontations in the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, Beijing provided Cambodia with a $200 million loan for helicopters, trucks, uniforms, military vehicles, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and equipment for an infantry institute it established here in 2013.

Dueling Oknhas

Undermining the RCAF sponsorship program is the ruthless attitude to business that oknhas bring to the job. Their interests range from enormous land concessions and industrial parks to plantations, garment factories, logging, resources, and agricultural interests.

Just before the prominent environmentalist Chhut Vuthy was shot dead in 2012, he had been approached by a Cambodian soldier who was ordered by a Chinese company to stop him from taking photos from a public road.

He was perfectly entitled to be there.

Thong Sarath – oknha and owner of the Borey 999 development project – allegedly ordered the November 22 murder of another oknha, Ung Meng Cheu, owner of the Shinmex Group.

His killing was captured on video, along with his tragic attempts at shielding himself from an assassin’s bullet – which can be seen on YouTube.

In another instance, the property magnate Sok Bun said he would renounce his oknha title while begging not to be imprisoned after a video was released showing him viciously beating a woman while his bodyguard held a gun to her head.

The woman, a television celebrity known as Ms Sasa, is the daughter of an oknha who is also a high-ranking military officer with the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit.

The expansion of the oknhas has created a moneyed class of politically connected elites along with an ever expanding wealth gap that is marginalizing the poor and alienating the aspiring middle classes, resulting in a dramatic slump in the CPP’s popularity.

There are almost 700 oknhas and sources say titles normally require a donation of about $100,000 to the ruling CPP.

Critics argued the oknha-RCAF deal was a simply a tool that binds political, commercial and military power under the ruling party’s banner, and augurs badly for the future.

“As land and forest becomes scarcer in Cambodia, the battle between the country’s ruling elite to control these valuable natural resources is intensifying,” Josie Cohen, a senior campaigner with Global Witness, said.

She said the military had repeatedly protected the business interests of its patrons with violence that included forced evictions over the last five years, and adds that the oknha-RCAF deal is one program that should be scrapped.

“We have repeatedly seen how companies belonging to powerful tycoons use state security forces as private armies to guard their land concessions,” she said. “The corporate-military sponsorship program formalizes this arrangement and threatens to turn the battle for land even more violent and deadly.”

A report released by rights group Adhoc in 2013 found RCAF had evicted nearly 1,000 families in 14 provinces off of about 2,000 hectares of land over the previous five years.

“People who lose their land cannot farm and receive death threats if they confront the military,” the report stated.

More recently RCAF was named alongside business groups, police, the gendarmerie and local authorities in a complaint lodged in the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging crimes against humanity were committed through widespread land grabbing – which has left its mark on more than 770,000 Cambodians.

Swearing Allegiance

Tea Banh has vowed to control democracy. He was very publicly backed by General Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, who said the military’s role was to secure the position of the ruling CPP.

That has annoyed the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which sees the oknha-RCAF deal beholding the military to the CPP as contrary to the nation’s constitution.

Cohen, who added the general’s pronouncements were “extremely concerning,” said the military must be kept separate from private-commercial interests.

“Allowing the military to become so politicized represents a serious threat to the future of Cambodian democracy and reduces the chance of a peaceful handover of power were the CPP to lose the general election in 2018 or at a later date,” she said.

The oknha-RCAF policy was at best born out of necessity but remains shortsighted and has only reinforced perceptions of Cambodia as a feudal society.

“Creating factions of the military into different regions controlled by different tycoons is very dangerous,” Ou Virak added. “It is Hun Sen who is pulling all the strings. He has managed to keep the peace. But how long can this last? I think it is quite fragile as all it needs is a spark. An economic downturn could be one.”

It is time for a rethink. In Cambodia, money and RCAF funding are not the same problems as they were five to 10 years ago. Many of the oknhas are senators in the National Assembly, some with assets worth in excess of a billion dollars.

Perhaps, it’s now time to tax them efficiently and centrally fund the military as a non-political instrument of power designed to protect the country and provide security where it is needed among all of its people, as opposed to a wealthy few.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt