This week, the Cambodian defense ministry announced that the military had carried out drills just south of the border with Laos. The drills once again reinforced Phnom Penh’s desire to boost its military presence and readiness amid lingering border issues with Laos and ahead of an upcoming election.
As I have noted before in these pages, Laos and Cambodia, two neighboring members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, share a 540-kilometer, partly demarcated land border that continues to be a source of friction despite advances in other aspects of ties. Last August, simmering border tensions yet again threatened to boil over into potential conflict and the situation was only deescalated after a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
Since that incident, we have seen Cambodia boost its military presence along the border even as it continues to manage differences with Laos through dialogue. One notable example of this was Hun Sen’s announcement of the establishment of a new military brigade called Infantry Brigade 128, which came less than a week after defusing the crisis with Laos in August. At the time, Hun Sen had said that Brigade 128, which would be comprised of around 3,000 personnel, was to be stationed in Stung Treng province which includes a major stretch of the disputed border with Laos. It would essentially function as a mobile intervention brigade under Military Region 1, with troops having regular training and being stationed near the border.
Brigade 128 was officially inaugurated in October in a ceremony presided over by Defense Minister Tea Banh. Though he emphasized a range of tasks for Brigade 128, including road construction and the building of villages, he also clearly stated that it would help defend Cambodia’s national sovereignty and better manage its ties with Laos. Since then, more funding and personnel have gradually begun to be allocated to Brigade 128 as well. And with elections approaching later this year, and Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) looking to shore up their status as defenders of the country’s sovereignty, some drills or training activities were expected in 2018 as well.
On February 27, the Cambodian defense ministry confirmed that Infantry Brigade 128 had carried out a drill just south of the border with Laos. The limited live-fire exercises occurred as part of a small weapons training program. Unsurprisingly, few additional specifics were publicly provided, including the exact number of troops involved and what the exact components were.
Cambodian defense officials predictably played down the engagement as part of a routine set of military engagements. Cambodian defense ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat emphasized that Cambodia had carried out ongoing live-fire drills near the border in the past and that this was about training Cambodian forces and strengthening their readiness rather than threatening another country.
Yet the nature of the activity, its timing, as well as the messaging that followed, is consistent with the Cambodian government’s desire to underline its determination to boost the country’s military position relative to Laos as well as its sovereignty more generally as it heads to an election, even as it tries to work out differences through diplomacy.