In a move that is troubling opposition party lawmakers, Cambodia’s National Assembly agreed to boost 2017 defense spending in the country by about 23 percent even though the country is at peace.
“We have noted that there is a contradictory point from the government’s claims that our country has peace and good relations with neighboring countries,” Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief whip Son Chhay told reporters after Wednesday’s vote to approve the budget.
“We are spending almost the same as Vietnam, which is having a conflict in the South China Sea,” Son Chhay told the Phnom Penh Post.
Vietnam and China are among the countries that are at loggerheads over Beijing’s attempts to control the valuable waterway.
Cambodia’s defense spending would run just over $470 million in 2017, according to an analysis by the newspaper. The Ministry of Interior and Public Order is slated to receive about $320 million, according to the analysis.
The country’s total budget for 2017 comes to about $5 billion, local media reported. All told, the budget plan projects that Cambodia’s spending will increase by about 15.6 percent with increases for most sectors.
Education spending for 2017 is expected to be about $667 million, while health spending for comes in at around $420 million, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
While the CNRP was critical of the budget approved by all 66 members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party who attended the parliamentary session, the opposition abstained from voting, according to local media.
Son Chhay told reporters after the vote that the CNRP could not support the budget because of what it deemed insufficient increases in spending to the Health Ministry and Education Ministry.
“The spending doesn’t respond to the needs of priority sectors such as education and health, but the defense sector keeps increasing,” he said, according to The Cambodia Daily.
Prime Minister Hun Sen left the assembly’s plenary session early to attend a meeting with the Vietnamese and Lao prime ministers.
The color of money
While Hun Sen didn’t stick around, the national budget reflects his priorities, and the increase in military spending is problematic as the prime minister has shown little reticence about using the military inside Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s personal body guard has been linked to abuses of power including the 1997 grenade attack that killed 16 people in what appeared to be an assassination attempt that targeted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy.
Three members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s military bodyguard, convicted of the brutal beating of a pair of opposition lawmakers near the National Assembly last year, were freed earlier this month after serving just one year in prison.
Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit also deployed military helicopters, navy vessels and troops for “exercises” close to CNRP headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh.
The prime minister, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has also made it clear that he will use the military to crush any “color revolution” in the country.
“All armed forces are obliged to absolutely ensure that Cambodia is free from any color revolutions,” the Cambodian strong man wrote in a Facebook post.
“Such a revolution will harm people’s happiness and peace in Cambodia,” he wrote. “Armed forces shall protect the legitimate government.”
He made similar remarks during the Police Academy of Cambodia’s graduation ceremony.
Hun Sen has inveighed several times against “color revolutions,” named after a series of popular movements that used nonviolent protests under colored banners to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.
Civil society groups and their supporters began staging “Black Monday” protests soon after the arrests of officials from the human rights group ADHOC that came in connection with the government’s wide-ranging probe into an alleged affair between CNRP leader Kem Sokha and a young hair dresser.
While the protests began as an attempt to pressure the government over the arrests, it has morphed into a more generalized campaign against government abuses, including land confiscations. Demonstrators wear black during the Monday protests as a symbol of solidarity.
Land concession debate
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Land issues were also part of the budget debate on Tuesday as Son Chaay blamed the country’s need to borrow $1 billion on the government’s inability to collect taxed from companies with land concessions.
Cambodia leases out large parcels of land to private companies that use the land concessions for growing crops or other economic activity.
“There is a conspiracy to let the concessionaires violate their contracts and sell the concession land or continue their deforestation,” he said according to the Phnom Penh Post report.
Deforestation is a big issue in Cambodia and other Asian countries. Companies with large land concessions often clear cut valuable timber from what are supposed to be protected forests. The timber is then smuggled into China where it is used to make high-end furniture.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap defended the budget, saying it will help the country achieve its objective.
“Spending for the 2017 budget is in response to the priorities and needs of the various ministries and institutions to achieve their policy objectives,” he said, according to the Cambodia Daily.
Reported and translated by RFA's Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.