A two-week military exercise with China helped build up Cambodia’s military capacity and relationship with the Chinese, the country’s defense minister said, rejecting criticism that it was unwise to admit foreign visitors amid the coronavirus epidemic.
The third annual “Golden Dragon” exercise was held from March 15 to March 31 with a combined force of 3,000 troops under the theme “counter-terrorism and humanitarianism” as ties between the two countries grow closer amid growing Western criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record.
The drill in Cambodia’s Kampot province included training in the use of tanks, armored vehicles, spy devices, and demining equipment, Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“Now most countries are locked down due to the COVID-19 but Cambodia and China still demonstrated their commitment to conduct the military exercise,” the pro-government Khmer Times quoted Defense Minister Tea Banh as saying.
“This exercise does not mean that we do not care about the outbreak of COVID-19. We care about that [virus] as well but were committed to having the exercise,” he said.
The Khmer Times said Banh dismissed criticism that Chinese troops would bring the coronavirus into country and that Beijing’s presence poses a threat to countries in the region.
“I wish to reject claims that China’s military will cause trouble. We [Cambodia and China] are together to tackle any issue in region,” the minister said.
“What we are doing here is all about our cooperation and relationship. I can tell you that the Chinese military is helping our troops to build up their capacity.”
This year’s exercises mark an expansion over those in 2019, when 250 Chinese and 2,500 Cambodian military personnel took part in drills over 15 days in the largest joint Cambodia-China military drills to be held on Cambodian soil since Cambodia suspended annual exercises with the United States and Australia in 2017.
Amid rising misgivings about China among Cambodians, Chinese troops, some of whom may have already been infected by the virus, should never have been brought into the country, Cambodian political and social analyst Kim Sok said.
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that the military exercises with China mainly serve to strengthen Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for over 30 years.
“But China knows that Hun Sen just wants to use Chinese influence, weapons, and money to protect his family’s power.” Kim Sok said.
Cambodia has grown isolated from Western aid donors and trade partners since its Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win all seats in a 2018 election seen as unfree and unfair.
After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with ASEAN nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodia in the form of real estate, agriculture and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Amid concerns about the virus in Cambodia, which had 110 cases as of April 1, military commander-in-chief Vong Pisen on Wednesday ordered Cambodian troops to remain on their bases, avoid public gatherings, and prepare themselves to receive orders to tackle the virus’ spread.
San Chey—director of the Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability—said he is concerned the April 1 order will be used as a cover to further restrict freedom of expression in the autocratic Southeast Asian state.
“We are concerned that the order may leave openings for abuse that will affect the people. We have seen in the past that the military sometimes overreacts to orders in ways that seriously limit people’s freedom,” he said.
On March 25, Hun Sen told a gathering of doctors, nurses, and volunteers in the capital Phnom Penh he was considering placing the country he has ruled since 1985 under a state of emergency, under which some freedoms would be curtailed.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Aun Pheap and Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.