Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cambodia: For hire - Cambodia’s royal armed forces

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

In a controversial decision by Cambodia’s Prime Minister, multinational corporations and other local enterprises will now be able to hire the country’s royal armed forces, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Security Watch

Just a little over two years ago, The Guardian ran a quiet article claiming that the Kingdom of Cambodia was a “country for sale.” The article outlined specific events of Cambodian history that lead to the overwhelming privatization of the kingdom - the Khmer Rouge regime sending more than 300,000 locals into exile and two million from its cities directly into the paddy fields and farmland in the 1970s, and once overthrown, to the 1985 “frenzied land-grabbing” after the rise to power by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s current prime minister.

The article noted that once Sen came to power, “influential political allies and wealthy business associates raced to claim land that the Khmer Rouge had seized, gobbling up such large chunks of the cities, forests and paddy fields that Cambodians used to say the rich were eating the country.” Throughout the 1990s, nurses became restaurateurs and school teachers were transformed into rural farmers.

By July 2007: “The forests, lakes, beaches and reefs - and the lives of the thousands of residents - were quietly transferred into the hands of private western developers. Arguing that Cambodia could become a tourist magnet to challenge Thailand, [Hun Sen] began a fire sale of mainland beaches. By March [2008], virtually all Cambodia's accessible and sandy coast was in private hands, either Cambodian or foreign.”

According to a report from Global Witness, over the last 15 years, 45 percent of the country’s land has been purchased by private interests.

And now those private interests are requesting security in a country that has much of its forces dedicated to an ongoing border standoff with Thailand. Earlier this month, Time reported that the solution to this problem, as innovated by Prime Minister Sen, came in the form of a program in which local businesses and multinational corporations in Cambodia could “provide donations” and “sponsor” specific parts of the Cambodian Armed Forces in return for the continued guarding of “large-scale private land concessions across the country” or to “evict the rural poor for business developments” and other locations where corporations operate.

According to Dr Emmanuel Yujuico - research fellow in Southeast Asia International Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science - “[This] is, unfortunately, a somewhat common occurrence.”

He told ISN Security Watch: “Given that military service is not the most remunerative occupation, branches of the military operating throughout Cambodia have sought alternative sources of livelihood. One of these has been protecting commercial interests. What the new initiative does in a way is formally recognize these arrangements. While a number of sponsorships can be innocuous such as those not involving possession of agricultural land, telecommunications and the like - those which do have raised concerns among activists.”

Corporate involvement

Critics of the policy believe it will solidify political, military and business powerbrokers in the country and ensure allegiance to the ruling party.

“Only major corporations having close ties with the ruling Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen [are sponsoring the armed forces]. Most of these companies are Cambodian-owned, but there are a few foreign companies which have joint ventures with Cambodian companies such as Lao Meng Khin who is the partner in Shukaku, a Japanese company which is developing the Boeng Kak [area] which also involves large-scale evictions of slum-dwellers there,” a journalist and publisher of the Khmerization blog told ISN Security Watch. (For security reasons, the journalist requested anonymity.)

“Metfone, a Vietnamese phone company and Mobitel Telephone company, a joint venture between Kith Meng's Royal Group and Sweden's Millicom and ANZ Royal Bank, are also involved.”

“Security is now in the hands of private business. Because private businesses [have the financial ability] to control the army, they therefore hold national security at ransom. [It is unclear how] it might affect international relations, but it will be a detriment to national security as private sectors in Cambodia are not concerned about the interests of the nation, but about their interests only,” the journalist said.

While the government denies that the partnership between its armed forces and domestic corporations will be problematic, human rights organizations in Cambodia believe this kind of corporate sponsorship will undermine security equality by turning it into a lucrative competition for government favors.

US military support

While Cambodia’s ruling elite claim the sponsorship exists merely to “compensate for the military's lack of funding for troops' basic needs,” curiously absent is the acknowledgment of increasing US support of the Cambodian military. The US has provided at least $4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to Cambodia since 2006.

In early July 2010, Human Rights Watch condemned the announced partnership of US and Cambodian forces for the 2010 Global Peace Initiative. “The US selection of a Cambodian military unit with a record of human rights abuses to be the host of [the] annual peacekeeping exercise in Asia undermines the US commitment to promoting human rights in Cambodia,” the report said.

To train Cambodian forces for a mere two weeks, the US Department of Defense built a $1.8 million training center for Cambodia's ACO Tank Command Headquarters in Kompong Speu province.

According to Human Rights Watch, “In November 2008, the [ACO] unit seized the farmland of 133 families in Banteay Meanchey province, ostensibly to build a military base [and] in 2007, soldiers from the unit in Kompong Speu province used armored vehicles to flatten villagers' fences, destroy their crops, and confiscate their land.”

Jody Ray Bennett is a freelance writer and academic researcher. His areas of analysis include the private military and security industry, the materialization of non-state forces and the transformation of modern warfare