Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is overhauling his country’s powerful military, an exercise that could have implications for stability if moves are perceived to be more political than reform-oriented.

But the potential for ruffled feathers is rising as Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son and the military’s second highest ranking official, consolidates power over the rank and file and emerges as a likely dynastic successor to his father’s long-held premiership.

Hun Manet, 41, was promoted last year to army commander and deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) amid a surprise reshuffle of the armed forces’ three most senior positions.

The moves were made ahead of general elections that saw Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), under which many senior soldiers ran for elected office, consolidate a de facto one-party state after banning the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Although the ruling CPP came to power through a military putsch, after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979, its decades in consecutive power have been typified by civilian, not military, rule.

That might charge, however, if the distinctions between the military and party become less distinguishable as part of a dynastic succession from Hun Sen to Hun Manet.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) and his son Hun Manet (R) at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Cambodian Infantry Army in Phnom Penh, January 24, 2019. Photo: AFP/Handout

Hun Sen’s military overhaul is gathering steam. In February, Defense Minister Tea Banh stripped 29 military officials of their multiple positions.

On April 27, Hun Sen ordered the Defense and Interior Ministries to deepen the restructuring by reducing the number of high-ranked military officials, as well as those in the police forces.

Municipal and provincial police chiefs who currently rank as one- or two-star generals will be downgraded to colonels, while generals in the armed forces, of which there are over 3,000, will be relegated to lieutenant generals in a further reduction of the ranks.

“What is happening is a systematic purge of the armed forces and police to make their leadership more assuredly loyal to Hun Sen and Hun Manet,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.

Hun Manet’s profile, meanwhile, is rising with his rank. In recent months, the West Point-trained soldier has led military delegations to China, Russia and Thailand, taken part in a special operations conference in the US, and, for the first time last week, commanded a live-fire military exercise, a five-day maneuver codenamed Golden Hanuman.

According to statements by Hun Sen, only three individuals – the defense minister, the RCAF commander-in-chief and the head of the National Police – should hold the title of general.

“We are reforming military ranks for the growth of our country… We are decreasing their ranks because the majority of our military officials are high-ranking,” Tea Banh said on April 29. RCAF’s infantry spokesman Mao Phalla, in interviews with local media, said the changes to ranks would only apply once current generals retire.

However, Defense Ministry officials later indicated that the restructuring process will soon take place, and instructed military officials not to be “demoralized” by the de facto demotions.

Cambodia’s armed forces display anti-riot gear and assault rifles at the Olympic stadium ahead of July 2018 elections. Photo: AFP

“Hun Sen has a specific plan and strategy to develop our armed forces,” Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat told the Khmer Times, a local newspaper.

Analysts think the restructuring process will begin in the army and later be extended to the navy and air force. Hun Manet has said the restructuring “must be done step-by-step.”

The restructuring is long overdue, analysts say. Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said reducing the sheer number of high-ranked soldiers makes sense since “star inflation made Cambodia the butt of jokes.”

For decades, the CPP-led government has promoted so many military officials that the country’s armed forces have more generals than most developed nations’ militaries.

Last year, there were almost 3,000 generals atop a military of only 125,000 troops. Critics argue that not only is the star inflation expensive, since military officials are paid according to their rank, but it has also complicated and confused chains of command due to a complex network of similarly-ranked officials.

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, has claimed in recent media interviews that the restructuring reforms are not political but rather designed to improve the “efficiency of the armed forces.”

However, given the intimacy between the military and the ruling CPP, any changes within the armed forces will necessarily be viewed through a political lens. Indeed, the sudden change from promoting to demoting many high-ranking officials has raised political hackles.

The CPP, in power since 1979, previously maintained control over the armed forces by appointing senior military officials onto the party’s numerous committees or by rewarding loyal troops with promotions, largesse and concessions that have often been leveraged into business ventures.

In March 2018, for example, just months before a general election, the government ordered a fresh round of promotions of military personnel which saw the number of new generals promoted in the preceding 12 months rise to almost 800, according to a local media report.

Cambodian soldiers in formation in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Six of these new generals also joined the ruling CPP’s Central Committee, which the party’s spokesman Sok Eysan described as “normal” in an interview with the Phnom Penh Post newspaper that month.

At the time, the CPP clearly wanted to curry as much favor as possible with the military around a controversial election, which translated into mass promotions and bringing military officials into the political fold.

Today, however, analysts say the sheer number of military personnel with outsized ranks has become a hindrance for the ruling party, especially as it now faces the risk of internal destabilization amid a brewing political crisis that is reputedly testing top soldiers’ loyalties.

The US and European Union have threatened economic sanctions over recent democratic backsliding that could hit top brass interests. If the US passes the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, introduced to the US House of Representatives in January, it could even result in sanctions on individual military and security officials.

Moreover, Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s exiled acting president, has recently called on the military to break ranks with the government if ordered to fire on CNRP-aligned protestors, a call that has made some CPP stalwarts uneasy about the political loyalties of troops, analysts say.

Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since late 2016, was tried in absentia by a Phnom Penh Municipal Court last week and sentenced to eight years in prison for inciting and demoralizing the army, as well as for defaming the king.

Still, Hun Sen’s government has adopted a barracks mentality, some analysts suggest, and reputedly wants to ensure that any opposition it might face within the armed forces is buffered by a new stratum of loyal elites.

Sam Rainsy, then president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto
Sam Rainsy speaks to his supporters in Phnom Penh in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

There have long been suggestions that the military, especially lower-ranking personnel, prefer the CNRP over the CPP. This was alluded to by Sao Sokha, the powerful National Military Police chief and RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, when talk of military reforms was raised in early 2018.

At the time, he said that “discipline reforms” ought to be introduced to “educate the mind and spirit… to make all soldiers understand clearly their role and work, and have the correct concept of right and wrong.”

He added that troops should not be allowed to post messages on Facebook supportive of the opposition CNRP, while their seniors should keep a close eye on their underlings to maintain their loyalty to the ruling party.

There are certain suggestions of factional disloyalty. Sam Rainsy claimed in a Facebook post that Hun Sen ordered demotions in the military because he does not trust some officials and “he was scared of a military coup, which may explode in the near future.”

Jonathan Sutton, of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, claimed in late 2017 that “perhaps only 30% [of soldiers] now genuinely support Hun Sen,” while many lower-ranked troops are still loyal to Ke Kim Yan, RCAF commander-in-chief until 2009 when he was replaced by Hun Sen ally Pol Saroeun.

Ke Kim Yan was a known loyalist of the late Chea Sim, one of the CPP’s founders who was known to have controlled a faction separate from Hun Sen’s clique. Chea Sim’s brother-in-law is Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who some analysts think has inherited the rival faction; in recent months, Sam Rainsy has called on Sar Kheng to launch a palace coup against Hun Sen.

Ke Kim Yan currently serves as president of the powerful National Authority for Combating Drugs, which is under Sar Kheng’s Interior Ministry.

Hun Sen (R) with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who some analysts say could become the next prime minister. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Hun Sen (R) with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Loyal or disloyal, the military is clearly in a state of flux. Before last year’s general election, the three most senior military officials – RCAF commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun, and his deputies Kun Kim and Meas Sophea – all stepped down to run for political office. But their parliamentary intentions were short lived.

Just months after the CPP won all 125 seats in parliament at the July 2018 general election, a contest Western governments panned as rigged, the trio resigned as MPs and were subsequently appointed by Hun Sen as senior ministers in his government.

Because the trio almost certainly had no intention of serving as elected politicians, and it was reportedly the CPP leadership who instructed them to resign from parliament, most analysts think the process was always intended to be a peaceful, diplomatic way to retire the old guard.

It also allowed for Hun Manet to be promoted to the military’s second-highest ranking position and for more influence to flow to another long-term Hun Sen loyalist, Sao Sokha, who retained his military position and command of the National Military Police, a powerful national security-focused unit that is not under Sar Kheng’s Interior Ministry.

International watchdog Global Witness has reported that Sao Sokha is a long-time Hun Sen supporter who was a key player in the CPP’s 1997 coup which brutally dispatched its then power-sharing Funcinpec partner from government.
In 2017, Sao Sokha declared his National Military Police to be “absolutely loyal” to Hun Sen.

Many analysts reckon that military power is now effectively shared by Hun Manet and Sao Sokha, who are thought to have more influence that the actual RCAF commander-in-chief, Vong Pisen, formerly Sao Sokha’s deputy.

In the 2000s, however, Vong Pisen was thought to be more closely allied to Sar Kheng. In 2003, just before a general election, he was temporarily replaced as deputy commander of the military police by a member of Hun Sen’s elite bodyguard unit; it was suggested at the time that Hun Sen ordered the move to bolster his own security.

Now, Hun Sen more clearly trusts Vong Pisen, as he, Hun Manet and Sao Sokha were voted onto the CPP’s influential Permanent Committee in December. But his power as the most senior military official appears to have been weakened: five of the most important military units were moved under Hun Manet’s command within Army Headquarters last year.

Lieutenant General Hun Manet (L), the eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Cambodia's Military Police chief Sao Sokha (R) pray during a ground breaking ceremony at the Ministry of National Defense in Phnom Penh, June 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Hun Manet (L) and Military Police chief Sao Sokha pray during a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ministry of National Defense in Phnom Penh, June 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Indeed, Hun Manet is increasingly seen as primus inter pares within the military. That was seen when Hun Manet, not Vong Pisen, gave the opening speech at the Golden Hanuman military exercises earlier this month.

Last month, Hun Manet also led talks with American officials in Hawaii and Japanese foreign ministry officials in Phnom Penh, and visited neighboring Thailand’s ruling military chiefs.

In March, he led a delegation to Moscow to conduct talks with the Russian military, while the month prior he led another military delegation to China for a five-day tour.

Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger and frequent contributor to the Politikoffee group, argues that it “is the right time to reform [the military] before Hun Sen transfers power to the new blood in the inner circle of the CPP… He needs to make reform to pave a way for his successor.”

If this turns out to be his son Hun Manet, the question will be whether the ruling party further politicizes the military, or whether the army replaces the party altogether as the supreme source of authority and power in the country’s new one-party state context.