A Change of Guard

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Friday, 5 March 2010

Rocket test-fire successful

Though officials say the exercise was standard protocol, observers question the government’s motives in light of Cambodia’s political row with Thailand.

Kampong Chhnang Province
Photo by: Sovan Philong
RCAF units fire rockets from BM-21 launchers in a rare of military hardware testing exercise in Kampong Chhnang on Thursday.

CAMBODIA successfully test-fired 200 rockets in Kampong Chhnang province on Thursday in what officials said was a routine exercise, but which some observers said was an orchestrated display of military might.
Minister of Defence Tea Banh, who oversaw the launch at a Kampong Chhnang airfield, said the event was designed to test the quality of the weapons and give troops practice in using them. The rockets were fired from BM-21 launchers, which military experts say are designed to suppress infantry.

“We tested them successfully, and all 200 rockets were shot to the right location,” Tea Banh told reporters after the launch. “There is no doubt, because what we are doing is showing our ability to defend the nation from any encroachment.”

The exercise began at 8am, with the rockets launched into the sky leaving billowing smoke as troops of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) stood by. Rockets were fired from launchers mounted on 15 trucks – 10 of which were given by the Soviet Union and five by China in the 1980s, said Phat Sopheap, an RCAF solider who completed a 90-day training course to prepare for the exercise.

Speaking in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen deemed the exercise a resounding success.

“There were no technical errors, and no danger occurred. Within half an hour, all 15 trucks had discharged their rockets,” Hun Sen said at a ceremony celebrating International Women’s Day at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “This is not to flex our military muscle – it is a typical exercise to prepare the military to defend the nation from any incursion.”

Though plans originally called for just 10 trucks’ worth of rockets to be fired 17 kilometres, Hun Sen said he later decided to launch 15 trucks’ worth of rockets to their maximum range of 40 kilometres. He dismissed speculation that the launch was meant to intimidate neighbouring Thailand, with which diplomatic relations are currently strained.

“Even if we didn’t have a dispute, now is the time to test them,” Hun Sen said, adding that local residents had to take care to avoid the target area until military officials deemed it safe.

Echoes across the border

Veerachon Sukondhadhpatipak, deputy spokesman of the Royal Thai Army, said Cambodia was well within its rights to conduct military exercises on its own soil, requesting only that Cambodian officials closely monitor the event.

Thailand “would like to ask the Cambodian side to be very careful not to have some sort of incident that could provoke some sort of confrontation or could cause some loss of life,” Veerachon said.

WhereasThursday’s launch took place in central Cambodia in Kampong Chhnang province, Thailand conducted military exercises in Surin province, adjacent to the Thai-Cambodian border, in January and February. In August, a Thai military plane drew Cambodian ire by flying low over the Preah Vihear temple complex and its surroundings.

Veerachon said, however, that Thailand has no interest in provoking discord along the border.

“If the reason behind the exercise is threat from Thailand, there’s no point,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbour, and we don’t want anything unfruitful to happen along the border.

Carlyle Thayer, a military expert at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said the launch was “a bit of theatre” on Hun Sen’s part.

“It demonstrates that he’s in charge. It demonstrates the bravado,” Thayer said. “The military is a support base for him; there’s no question of it.”
On February 22, Hun Sen signed a document establishing partnerships between individuals and groups from the private sector and elements of the RCAF, whereby the military units are to receive charitable support.

This initiative, Thayer said, indicates the military’s expanding space in the Cambodian public sphere.

“It’s entrenching the political influence of the military in society – it makes it harder for real civilian control over the military,” he said.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that although Cambodia cannot be accused of manufacturing its dispute with Thailand, the current tensions are nonetheless “an opportunity for Hun Sen to militarise or gain support for the military”.

Pointing to both the business-RCAF partnerships and Hun Sen’s recent criticisms of the TV5 television station – the premier said last week that TV5 ought to be showing more military-related programmes – Ou Virak said Cambodia is drifting towards a political model dominated by the armed forces.

“It’s an indication that the prime minister wants to create a military state, and also a one-party state,” Ou Virak said.

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