from Asia Unbound

Why is There a Military Build-up in Phnom Penh?

August 19, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen as they participate in an East Asia Summit dinner in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)
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Over the weekend, tanks, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weaponry appeared in the Phnom Penh area, according to reports in the Cambodian press and in Asia Sentinel. Only a few weeks after Cambodia’s national elections, which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) allegedly won in a squeaker and the opposition claims was fraudulent, why are tanks and APCs rolling into Phnom Penh? Cambodia has no battles in the capital; even its border skirmishes with Thailand over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple have calmed down in the past two years. No, the show of force is designed to intimidate opposition supporters, who tend to live in urban areas. Defense Minister Tea Banh of the CPP didn’t mince words. According to the Cambodia Daily, he said, “You don’t have to wonder, they [the weapons] will be used to protect the country, and crack down on anyone who tries to destroy the nation."

Although the U.S. Congress has long maintained tough policies toward Cambodia, because of the authoritarian behavior of longtime prime minister Hun Sen—now the longest-serving leader in Asia—the Obama White House has pursued military-military ties with Hun Sen’s government, despite Hun Sen’s increasingly autocratic political style. Although, in the wake of the closest election in Cambodia in two decades, Hun Sen seemed to be conciliatory toward the opposition, he and the CPP now are returning to form. The military show of force is likely to be part of a broader crackdown on opposition politicians and supporters. The national election commission just decided it would not even investigate irregularities in the recent vote, despite obvious massive irregularities, and at least one opposition activist was murdered last week.

Although Cambodia under Hun Sen has had high growth rates, aid still comprises almost half of the central government’s budget. Yet over and over, going back two decades, donors have criticized Hun Sen yet never halted the aid tap. After what looks like a stolen election, and the rumblings of a new crackdown, will this time be any different? Given that the White House and Pentagon still value military cooperation with Cambodia highly—although I believe that Cambodia has minimal strategic value, given that the United States has many other close partners in its neighborhood—don’t expect donors, including the United States to do anything this time either.