Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son unveiled a shipment of 290 Chinese-made military trucks on Thursday, saying the vehicles were not aid from Beijing but gifts from unnamed donors – prompting fears they will be deployed against civilians amid a three-year crackdown on the opposition.
At a ceremony to distribute the vehicles to the armed forces and police, Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son and commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, parried criticisms of the acquisition, saying that the money for the trucks came from private donations and did not cost Cambodia a single riel.
He did not reveal the names of the donors, but – adding to confusion about the provenance of the trucks– the military posted a sign at the ceremony saying the vehicles were donated by Hun Sen and his wife.
The donors “want to update the military’s capacity to serve the country and people,” he said at the ceremony.
“Buying the trucks was not a waste of money,” said the three-star general.
He said the vehicles, ordered a year earlier, would be used during natural disasters such as floods and wildfires and to defend Cambodia’s interests in a border dispute with Vietnam that dates back to end of French colonial rule in the 1950s.
“The military can’t jump on motorbikes to help people in cases of emergency. The trucks are a new way to increase the military’s capacity in serving the country and the people,” said.
Hun Manet denied that the trucks, which arrived by ship last week, were a gift from the Chinese government. Beijing’s political support is seen by wary Cambodians as entrenching Hun Sen’s authoritarian policies while deepening Chinse influence on the country.
“We do not need to lie, If they were donated by China, then we will say it is a Chinese donation,” he said. “If it was a Chinese donation and we said we purchased the trucks, would they agree?”
Trucks for crackdowns
Critics are concerned that the trucks will be used to help the government more efficiently subjugate the Cambodian people – three years after Hun Sen banned the country’s main opposition party and arrested its leader, in a crackdown that still sees activists arrested every week,
“The trucks will be used to crack down on the people, not to fight against a Vietnamese invasion,” Um Sam An, a former lawmaker from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He pointed out that Cambodia’s military had no trouble responding to a recent border incident in Kandal province.
“These trucks will be used to protect [Hun Manet’s] father’s power,” said Um Sam An, who also disagreed with distributing some of the vehicles to the police.
“Police don’t need large trucks, so it is inappropriate,” he said.
Another critic called on the government to be more transparent about the donors.
“Donors never hide their identities,” Kim Sok, a Finland-based analyst, told RFA.
“These trucks will be used to mobilize the military to crack down on mass protests against Hun Sen’s dictatorship,” Kim Sok said.
While the cost of the trucks was not revealed, RFA reported in late July 2019 that Hun Sen revealed he had allocated U.S. $40 million to purchase unspecified arms from China, on top of $290 million it had already spent on military purchases from Beijing.
The two countries staged joint military exercises over the final two months of March, when China was in the thick of its COVID-19 response.
With Cambodia isolated from Western trade partners since the crackdown on the opposition, Beijing has offered its full support for Hun Sen’s government. In turn, Cambodia has increasingly backed Chinese positions on international issues, including in disputes in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and coarsebehavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.