Cambodia: Armed Forces Under Personalized Control
Summary and Keywords
The evolution of Cambodia’s armed forces has been incremental yet highly disjointed, reflecting the country’s post–World War II history itself. At the same time, there has been a legacy of military authoritarianism in Cambodia. Using the framework of historical institutionalism, this chapter looks at the evolution of Cambodia’s armed forces across time. The chapter points to a 1979 critical juncture which affected the military’s organizational history. It also stresses that especially since 1997 the armed forces has become increasingly concentrated under the personalized control of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The military in 2020 appears as a mechanism of Hun Sen’s, doing his bidding and following his preferences.
As such the armed forces in Cambodia should be viewed as an interventionist military that has acted as the junior partner in an asymmetrical relationship with Hun Sen. With Hun Sen’s 2018 appointment of his son Hun Manet to command the army, concurrent with being deputy supreme commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, it appears as though the military is becoming even further centralized under the Hun family. As a result, although civilian control over the military technically exists in Cambodia today, it is not an institutionalized, accountable form of control, but rather an unofficial, tool of violent power for the Prime Minister.
The military of Cambodia has undergone a chaotic, historical evolution up to its current status under the civilian leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Although in 2019 the armed forces might appear as a simple mechanism of the state, throughout Cambodia’s history the military has entrenched an authoritarian legacy across the country while serving under dominant ruling personalities and highly centralized political parties amid decades of violent chaos and national crises. The evolution of Cambodia’s armed forces has thus been incremental yet highly disjointed, reflecting the country’s post–World War II history itself. Yet what accounts for the military’s intense involvement within the country’s society and politics? When and how did the military become involved in Cambodia’s political system? What is the nature of civil-military relations today? How might the current role of the military in Cambodia best be characterized? Using the explanatory framework of historical institutionalism (HI), this article addresses these questions.
The article argues that Cambodia’s historical legacy of authoritarianism has reinforced a path dependence of a strong military in Cambodia. A 1979 critical juncture guaranteed that the armed forces would be under the control of a political party, though the armed forces remained ubiquitous across society. Since 1997, the military has become increasingly concentrated under the personalized control of one person—Prime Minister Hun Sen. In fact the role of the military today in 2019 appears to be to undergird Hun Sen’s personalization of power. As such, the armed forces in Cambodia should be viewed as an interventionist military that has acted as the junior partner in an asymmetrical relationship with Hun Sen. With Hun Sen’s 2018 appointment of his son Hun Manet to command the army concurrent with being deputy supreme commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, it appears as though the military is becoming even further centralized under the Hun family. As a result, though civilian control over the military technically exists in Cambodia today, it is not an institutionalized, accountable form of control, but rather is an unofficial tool of violent power for Hun Sen. Following the introduction, this article is organized into five parts. First, it briefly looks at “Historical Institutionalism,” the framework used to analyze the evolution of Cambodia’s military. Second, it examines “Cambodia’s Military Before 1992.” Third, in “Cambodia’s Military: 1992–2019,” it analyzes 1992–1993 United Nations (UN) attempts to restructure the Cambodian military until 2019. Fourth, in “Cambodia’s Military in 2019,” it examines the Cambodian military today. Fifth and finally, it offers a “Conclusion.”
The historical development of Cambodia’s military has involved a chronological path dependence of self-reproducing authoritarianism, patron–clientelism, and domination by autocratic personages. Historical institutionalism elucidates how such historical evolution occurred. The approach is useful in explaining institutional persistence and change across time. Historical institutionalists emphasize how institutions shape not only strategies but also the historical evolution of preferences, goals, and interests (Thelen & Steinmo, 1992, p. 9). The approach offers explanations about how events in history either constrained or offered opportunities that affected institutional resilience or transformation (see Mahoney & Rueschmeyer, 2003; Pierson, 2000, 2004; Pierson & Skocpol, 2002; Thelen & Steinmo, 1992). Such transformations involve alterations in the distribution of power between societal actors across time, as reflected in political institutions (Mahoney & Thelen, 2010, p. 18). Beginning from the institutional point of origin, initial institutional patterns become chronologically reinforced, producing persistent impacts on contemporary configurations (Pierson, 2004). The framework emphasizes the importance of historical dynamics and contingency rather than staticity and determinism. As such, it is practical in showing how a sequential series of events helps to reinforce configurations that have later effects. In addition, historical institutionalism emphasizes how institutions develop over time and reflect the relative bargaining power of actors that created them.
The historical evolution of Cambodia’s military has involved three concepts: historical-cultural legacies, path dependence, and critical junctures. The first, historical legacies, comprise prior contextual conditions of the past, which, once created, become self-reproducing and entrenching (Collier & Collier, 1991). For Cambodia, the historical legacy that exists is the fact that a strong, personalist-led military has been deeply embedded across the country across time. This military has tended to be repressive and subjected to patron-client relations.1 As in other countries, patron–client relations in Cambodia involve a patron providing favors to a client in return for goods, loyalty, or specific services (Jacobsen & Stuart-Fox, 2013, pp. 6–7; see also Hughes, 2006). Such a relationship became entrenched across Cambodia’s history.
The second concept, path dependence, has been defined as an evolutionary trajectory whereby, once actors make certain institutional choices, “the costs of reversal are very high. There will be other choice points, but the entrenchments of certain institutional arrangements obstruct an easy reversal of the initial choice” (Levi, 1997, p. 28). For Cambodia, path dependence means that the country has been unable to move off of the trajectory of continuously reproducing autocracy and strongman domination over a clientelistic armed forces. To a great extent, the costs of reversal have been very high in Cambodia because of the inertia of patron–client relations. Critical junctures are defined as “short, time-defined periods, where antecedent conditions allow contingent choices that set a specific trajectory of institutional modification that is difficult to reverse” (Page, 2006, p. 87). In the case of Cambodia, one would imagine that eventually a critical juncture came along to break the country free of its path dependence. Though that never happened, as this article shows, a critical juncture did come along to ensure that the military would evolve as a powerful instrument of one man—as it remains in 2019. Historical institutionalism helps to explain the institutional persistence of personalist-dominated armed forces in overshadowing Cambodia across time until 2019. Indeed the Cambodian military evolved down a path that seems very “traditional” in the sense of supporting whichever ruler was in power at a given point in time.
Cambodia’s Military Before 1992
To understand the Cambodian military today, it is necessary to analyze how it evolved across time. Following independence and before 1992, there were four regimes, each of which helped to shape the path dependence of the armed forces. These regimes amounted to phases of military development: (a) the regime of Norodom Sihanouk, (b) the dictatorship of Lon Nol, (c) the Khmer Rouge tyranny, (d) autocracy under a Vietnamese proxy regime, and (e) a period of divided governance. During the period of the regimes together, Cambodia broke down into civil war and became scarred by intense authoritarianism, division, and foreign encroachment, all of which helped to further embed the power of Cambodia’s military.
Independence and Sihanouk (1953–1970)
Under French colonial rule (1863–1953), colonial troops were initially organized as a Regiment Tirailleurs Cambodgiens (commanded by French officers but composed of Cambodian soldiers) to maintain order (Forest, 1980, pp. 135–141). Only on January 7, 1946, did the French agree to the formation of a Cambodian army, formally under King Norodom Sihanouk. Yet this military (the Royal Khmer Army, or Armée Royale Khmère [ARK]) was commanded by French officers and organized according to French military norms, and it was tasked with maintaining domestic security (Conboy, 2011, p. 9). The ARK, which fought alongside other French forces, saw immediate action against the Khmer Issarak rebels in the First Indochinese War (1946–1954). November 9, 1953, represented the onset of the path of the military’s evolution. On that date, King Norodom Sihanouk, as head of newly independent Cambodia, established the Royal Khmer Armed Forces (FARK) (Soonthornpoct, 2005). At the same time, Sihanouk came to exert personalist control over Cambodian politics and society, a phenomenon that included his personalist domination over the FARK. His 1955 abdication (substituted with his father) allowed Sihanouk to compete in 1955 elections that brought to office his Sangkum Reastr Niyum (SRN) party.
Sihanouk’s SRN won all parliamentary seats in every Cambodian election (1955, 1958, 1962, and 1966) (Nohlen, Grotz, & Hartmann, 2001, p. 74). As such, Sihanouk’s personalist power over the military was not challenged by parliament. The 1955 election, like almost all future elections in Cambodia, was a charade but was important in giving the appearance of legitimizing in power whichever strongman—such as Sihanouk—was dominating the country at the time. When Sihanouk’s father died in 1960, Sihanouk became both head of state and leader of SRN, further monopolizing power over the country until he was overthrown in a 1970 putsch. The putsch proved that Sihanouk had become a poor patron to the military. His fall would pave the way to a new regime that gave Cambodia’s armed forces a greater role and privileges across the country.
The period left two residues. First, Sihanouk became the personalist patron over Cambodia: he was both monarch and, through his SRN, “a dictatorial Chief of State, with his policies ratified by a rubber-stamp National Assembly” (Vickery, 1999). The SRN and FARK were each clientelistic mechanisms through which Sihanouk dispensed patronage in return for services. Though there was civilian control over the military, such supremacy was not democratically institutionalized, but rather autocratically personalized under Sihanouk alone. The period thus initiated a pattern whereby a highly centralized ruling party dominated Cambodian politics, society, and the Cambodian armed forces.
Second, the military began to take a very prominent role in society. From the mid-1950s, it was responsible for administering development and repressing any domestic dissent. During the period 1963 to 1969, FARK implemented several developmental projects such as the construction of roads, dykes, dams, and even the local administration of provincial Cambodia (Kingdom of Cambodia, 2000, p. 13). In the late 1960s, the armed forces were engaging in increasing amounts of counter-insurgency and repression. Though he officially endorsed military operations and assumed the role of FARK’s patron, Sihanouk generally acquiesced to the military’s direct control over these operations, a situation that enhanced military clout across both Cambodian politics and society. Ultimately, from 1953 independence until 1970, Cambodians saw a highly centralized form of rule by a party under one man, depending on a powerful military to persist in power.
Under Lon Nol (1970–1975)
The year 1970 witnessed a military coup that ousted Sihanouk from office. The coup leader, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gen. Lon Nol became Cambodia’s de facto leader. He immediately transformed Cambodia’s regime, turning the country into a republic, with the president acting as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He also changed FARK’s name to the Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK). As such, Lon Nol succeeded Sihanouk as Cambodia’s personalized patron of the military. Furthermore under Lon Nol, external crisis, political divisions, and legacies of authoritarianism greatly expanded. Nevertheless, there was no critical juncture in the evolution of the military. Instead, the path dependence of a powerful military serving a personalistic patron leading a highly centralized party simply persisted (Pou Sovachana, deputy director of the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace, personal interview, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 6, 2015). Lon Nol permitted but one election (1972), in which his Social Republican Party, like Sihanouk’s SRN, won all of the parliamentary seats (Nohlen et al., 2001, p. 63).
The legacies from this period amounted to a further entrenchment of the path instituted during the Sihanouk regime. First, like the previous regime, power was personalized in one man and patron—Lon Nol—over the clientelistic FANK, although the extent of national involvement by the military became greater than under Sihanouk. Indeed, Lon Nol led a personalist military-dominated] regime (Geddes, 2003, pp. 50–53). Second, the armed forces rationalized its expansion by engaging in combat against Khmer Rouge guerrillas as well as Viet Cong and Vietnamese soldiers. The United States, Lon Nol’s patron, informally guaranteed Cambodia’s external security (Clymer, 2004, p. 58). Lon Nol’s dictatorship eventually fell in 1975 when Pol Pot’s revolutionary Khmer Rouge guerrillas forced it from power.
Under the Khmer Rouge (1975–1979)
The rise to power of the Khmer Rouge marked a violent break with all regimes that Cambodia had ever witnessed. The state’s new revolutionary leaders immediately dissolved FANK and created the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK), composed almost completely of loyal guerrilla fighters who, prior to the 1975 revolution, had served in the Cambodian People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (CPNLAF), insurgent army of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot had initially founded the RAK in 1968 before changing the name to the CPNLAF in the early 1970s. The RAK existed under the centralized control of the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea—the Khmer Rouge as led by Brother Number One—Pol Pot. Following the revolution, to preserve its supremacy over the military, the Khmer Rouge organized the RAK’s command structure such that units were under three-person committees where a political commissar ranked higher than the military chief and the chief’s deputy. Though the RAK was itself extremely repressive, periodic, bloody purges of the army itself, resulting from Pol Pot’s own paranoia, ended up decimating and weakening it (Tatu, 1990, pp. 261–262). Following the pattern of the two previous regimes, “Democratic Kampuchea” held an election in 1976, in which only the state party, the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), won seats in parliament. In fact, FUNK was the only party allowed to compete in the election (Nohlen et al., 2001, p. 64). Though 1975 did radically transform politics, society, and the military, the Khmer Rouge era lasted less than four years. Because of this, there was no critical juncture.
However, despite the sharp regime disruption of 1975, the path dependence of Cambodia’s Sihanouk and Lon Nol regimes persisted in two specific ways. First, the RAK played a dominant role throughout 1975–1979, overshadowing Cambodian society and securing the Khmer Rouge’s control of it. Thus it was primarily tasked with internal security but later unsuccessfully fought against intervening Vietnamese forces. Second, the RAK, as a major though decentralized Khmer Rouge institution and client, was obedient to the personalized control of a single patron—Pol Pot. Ultimately, as with the two previous regimes, the Khmer Rouge period witnessed the path dependence of a personality-centered regime supported by a strong military. Whereas the United States had been Lon Nol’s patron, China acted as the Khmer Rouge’s patron, attempting to ensure Cambodia’s external security (Mertha, 2014).
Under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (1979–1992)
On January 7, 1979, following a December invasion of Cambodia, Vietnam captured Phnom Penh, toppling the Khmer Rouge, and established the puppet People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), as led by the pro-Vietnamese Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), itself established by the (pro-Vietnamese) Khmer National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). The PRK’s army was called the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF), the core officers of which had come from the Vietnam-created Cambodian militia group Brigade 125 (“National Historical Relic,” 2012).
Despite seizing Phnom Penh, from 1979 until 1989, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the PRK were compelled to fight Cambodian insurgents from three groups. First, there was the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK), the renamed RAK of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Second, there was the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), the military branch of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), led by the non-communist though non-royalist Son Sann, a longtime Cambodian politician. Third, there was the Sihanouk National Army (Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste [ANS]), which represented the armed branch of the pro-Sihanouk National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif [FUNCINPEC]) (Tatu, 1990, pp. 266, 269). Because these groups were supported by the United States, China, and Thailand, they remained well armed, a fact which prolonged the fighting along the Thai–Cambodian border (see Conboy, 2013).
While the PAVN took a leading role in counter-insurgency efforts, alongside its surrogate KPRAF, the KPRP existed as a party dictatorship across Cambodia. Indeed the country’s 1981 election saw the KPRP win every seat in the legislature, a poll in which only the KPRP was permitted to compete (Nohlen et al., 2001, p. 74). The election followed Cambodia’s well-worn trend whereby a single party dominated parliament and politics. But in this case, the regime at the time was dominated by Vietnam.
Events during 1979–1993 in Cambodia reinforced the path dependence of historical legacies influencing the country’s military institution. First, Cambodia’s military was strengthened to assist PAVN in combating insurgency and guaranteeing internal security. Indeed, the Vietnamese had created the KPRAF from scratch, alongside a new police (Gottesman, 2002, pp. 75, 226). Outside of PAVN, the KPRAF often did not informally answer to the KPRP (Gottesman, 2002, p. 229). Its leaders were PAVN loyalists, and the Vietnamese had organized it along the same lines as PAVN (Slocomb, 2003, pp. 126–127; 145–150). The KPRAF was also highly centralized in its command headquarters, under which there were three types of units: regular forces, provincial forces, and village militia (Tatu, 1990, p. 286). The current Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) traces its structural origins to the KPRAF. In the end, 1979 was arguably Cambodia’s only critical juncture in the evolution of its military, as that year witnessed the creation of the KPRAF as a vehicle for a newly created communist ruling party—the Vietnamese model. The path dependence of this powerful and partisan military has lasted (despite attempts in 1993 at modifications) until today (Heder, personal interview, Phnom Penh, November 7, 2014).
A second legacy, at least after 1985, was the domination of a clientelistic military by a powerful personage who became its patron. In 1985, Hun Sen became the third prime minister of the PRK, and his PKRP ruled with an iron fist across Cambodia until early 1993. He remained in power following PAVN’s departure from the country in 1989, surviving the end of the Cold War. In 1989, his government changed the name of the country from the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to the State of Cambodia (SOC) and the military from the KPRAF to the Cambodian People’s Armed Forces (CPAF), indicating his rising political power. By 1989, Hun Sen headed the strongest faction within the KPRP (renamed the Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] in 1991) (Vickery & Amer, 1996). Ultimately, given such factionalism and continuing civil war, Hun Sen came close to exerting personalized control over Cambodia’s military.
Cambodia’s Military: 1992–2019
In 1992, following the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, United Nations Peacekeepers, under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodian (UNTAC), was brought in to maintain order. Meanwhile UNTAC attempted to institute political changes, including reforms for Cambodia’s military.
Under the United Nations and Chaotic Democracy (1992–1997)
A major goal for UNTAC was to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate (DDR) Cambodia’s four warring factions, as well as construct a new, national Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) by means of security sector reform. However, the NADK refused to take part in DDR, which meant that only Hun Sen’s KPRAF, Son KPNLAF, and Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC formed the RCAF when it was launched in 1993. Yet these earlier groupings remained divisive factions within the new military (Peou, 2001, pp. 86–102). At the same time, UNTAC’s failed DDR meant that the Khmer Rouge insurgency continued, thus preventing a critical juncture from occurring with regard to Cambodia’s military.
UNTAC oversaw Cambodia’s 1993 multiparty general election. The result was that for the first time, the incumbent party, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was defeated, coming in second to FUNCINPEC. Also for the first time, elections had an impact on the military. CPP successfully pressured UNTAC to name Hun Sen as second prime minister and co-commander of the armed forces. Norodom Ranariddh, leader of FUNCINPEC and first prime minister, was the other military co-commander. Each prime minister had his own loyal portion of the military, though Hun Sen’s was quite larger. The entire arrangement was bizarre and fundamentally destabilizing for Cambodia’s newly created military. Not only was the RCAF divided because of this sharing of power over the military, it was further factionalized given the UNTAC formula for the armed forces’ post-1993 re-creation: 60% of it derived from the former KPRAF while 30% and 10% came from two former insurgent groups (Kingdom of Cambodia, 2000, p. 6). Ultimately, any internal RCAF stability was superficial as it was based on “carving up lucrative timber, protection, prostitution, drugs and other money-making rackets among its chiefs” (Grainger, 1998).
This period left two lasting legacies. First, the RCAF, like previous Cambodian militaries, continued its role of seeking to maintain order, expanding across the 1990s in size in its efforts to achieve victory against the Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, despite international pressure, Cambodia’s military remained factionalized between those backing Ranariddh and those supporting Hun Sen (Peou, 2001, pp. 86–102). Yet with such disunity, the military could not ensure internal security for the 1993–1997 government, and the Khmer Rouge insurgency continued unabated. By 1996, tensions were increasingly mounting between the forces of Ranariddh and Hun Sen; a schism had developed within the Khmer Rouge; and democratic forces had weakened (Lizee, 1997, p. 65).
Coup and Evolution of RCAF (1997–2013)
In 1997, a coup de force embedded lasting change in the Cambodian military. The putsch mostly derived from three basic dilemmas. First, the 1993 power-sharing agreement between the FUNCINPEC’s first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh and the CPP’s Hun Sen was fast unraveling. Indeed, Ranariddh had come to a deal to collaborate with the opposition anti-CPP Khmer Nation Party (Shaw, 2007). At the same time, the CPP had not followed through on its 1993 commitment to appoint FUNCINPEC partisans to 50% of all district chief positions in Cambodia. Second, the continuing political standoff was mirrored in the factionalized RCAF, of which the CPP enjoyed a majority of control. That being said, Rannariddh unsuccessfully attempted to achieve “military parity” with Hun Sen (Adams, 2007). Third, each side was courting former defecting Khmer Rouge fighters, attempting to integrate them into their clique. Hun Sen accused Ranariddh of preparing a coup against him with the help of Khmer Rouge fighters; at the same time, Hun Sen’s army faction was swelling given that many ex–Khmer Rouge fighters joined its ranks (Willemyns, 2017).
By April 1996, Hun Sen proposed a coup against others in his party, but they refused. At least twice more, he tried to convince them, before finally gaining their backing in July 1997. Nevertheless, RCAF Chief Gen. Ke Kim Yan, a CPP partisan, was reluctant to participate in the putsch. In the end, Hun Sen relied on a tailor-made collection of forces to seize power led by personal loyalists. On July 5–6, his recently created Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), led by Hing Bun Heang; the National Police, led by Hok Lundy; and RCAF elements, led by Deputy RCAF Commander Sao Sokha, eviscerated the FUNCINPEC forces in Phnom Penh. Several FUNCINPEC officers were thereupon tortured and executed (Adams, 2007). By October 1997, remaining FUNCINPEC resistance close to the border was effectively squelched (Kevin, 2000).
The putsch changed the factional character of the RCAF. There were numerous purges of military and FUNCINPEC elements, which were rooted out (or executed). However ex-Khmer Rouge fighters were accepted into the military. Gen. Ke Kim Yan, who had initially refused to support the coup, returned to his post in 1998 as RCAF commander, and the CPP leadership continued to be factious. Meanwhile, Hun Sen increasingly depended on irregular forces such as the PMBU, the military police (gendarmerie), and elements of the RCAF National Police to protect him and extend his interests (Adams, 2007). However, 1997 marked no critical juncture. Instead, following four years of political chaos, his CPP’s power over the entire military was restored.
One year after the coup, in July 1998, elections were held (there were numerous irregularities), which the CPP easily won. Then in 1998–1999, the RCAF, under Gen. Ke Kim Yan, defeated the remaining Khmer Rouge insurgents, a feat that earned Yan brief luster and enhanced his power base. But Hun Sen appointed three personal loyalists as deputy commanders to Yan, placing them closer to control over Cambodia’s ground forces (Willemyns, 2017). The government thereupon embarked on a military demobilization, especially needed because the armed forces in 1998 were taking up 49% of the national budget (Asian Development Bank [ADB], 2000, p. 30). Also, the military in 1999, at roughly 140,000 individuals (World Bank, 2001, p. 1), was bloated, although most soldiers were underpaid. Despite donor financial assistance aimed at downsizing Cambodia’s military, it mostly occurred as both a state cost-cutting measure and because Hun Sen wanted to invest more Defense Ministry funds into alternative security forces (e.g., the PMBU) (see Path, 2018). By 2003, donors funding security sector reform (SSR) were increasingly prioritizing other countries, and the RCAF was becoming more partisan. The period 1998–2003 saw the CPP regain its pre-1992 grip over the country and RCAF, albeit through a charade democracy. Moreover, local bureaucrats became the core of a “national chain of patron-client networks that ensured the accumulation and extension of power throughout the country” (Un, 2005, p. 2013). At the same time, as the 2003 general election approached, the CPP itself was divided: though Hun Sen’s faction enjoyed more intra-party clout, the clique of Ke Kim Yan, then-CPP party leader Chea Sim, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng together offered a potent resistance to it (Peou, 2015, p. 222).
Cambodia’s 2003 election result was tight, but the CPP eked out a bare victory, and Hun Sen returned to power as prime minister. Nevertheless, the poor showing and the continuing factionalism within the CPP meant that Hun Sen would have to wait to further personalize his control over Cambodia’s security forces. The prime minister seemed particularly worried about Ke Kim Yan and Sar Kheng, given their authority over soldiers and police, respectively. In 2005, Hun Sen threatened to fire Yan if he disobeyed orders, as Hun Sen was the overall commander of the armed forces (Peou, 2015, p. 222).
Then, in May 2008, just two months before Cambodia’s general election, nationalist tensions between Cambodia and Thailand spilled over into small, pitched border battles. Large numbers of Cambodian security forces were sent to the northern frontier to help guarantee Cambodian territory there. Hun Sen’s anti-Thai rhetoric helped to produce a landslide electoral victory for the CPP.
The landslide election and the tensions with Thailand helped to centralize CPP power in Hun Sen. At this point, in February 2009, he suddenly moved against his factional opponents by transferring Gen. Ke Kim Yan from his post as RCAF chief. One possible motive for the move was that Hun Sen’s loyalist police chief Hok Lundy had died months earlier in a helicopter crash, and Hun Sen likely felt the need to reestablish the CPP factional equilibrium.2 Ke Kim Yan was accused of being an ineffective commander along the Thai–Cambodian border. His replacement as RCAF Chief, Lt. Gen. Pol Saroeun, and seven new deputy RCAF commanders, were known to be Hun Sen cronies (Strangio & Sambath, 2009).
Meanwhile, paying for Cambodian troops along the border of Thailand was becoming onerous. Cambodia was feeling the effects of the global recession. By 2009, as frontier frictions persisted, the state increased the size of the military budget, and the RCAF expanded in size. Nevertheless, with insufficient state military funding, Hun Sen decided to urge private corporations to support separate Cambodian military units (Brady, 2010). Though the prime minister’s appeal to Cambodian companies was for them to make “voluntary” donations to military units, “it was a request you could not say no to” (Pou Sothirath, director of Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace, personal interview, May 19, 2014). By 2011, thanks to increased tensions with Thailand, the RCAF was again playing a major role in society, rationalized by the need to guard the country against intrusions from neighboring countries. Yet Hun Sen had succeeded in personalizing his control not only over the top positions in the PMBU and police and gendarmerie, but also in the armed forces itself. Perhaps he was complacent about his support across the country.
The July 2013 election would change that. The election result was extremely close: the CPP received the least number of seats that it had in the legislature since the 1998 poll. This occurred despite the fact that in the run-up to the election, the CPP employed security officials from the army, police, and gendarmerie to give campaign speeches as well as intimidate voters to support the CPP (Electoral Reform Alliance [ERA], 2013, p. 15). But such activity is not surprising because security forces have informally (though illegally) campaigned for the CPP prior to and during every election since 1998. What perhaps distinguished the 2013 election, however, was that when it was finished, military officials and vehicles surrounded the National Election Commission’s office, where the votes were being counted (Sovann Yim, National Assembly member and Cambodian National Rescue Party spokesperson, personal interview, November 15, 2014). In the end, the CPP was formally declared the victor. Amid post-election tension, a CPP-aligned radio host cautioned listeners of a military coup if Hun Sen lost the poll, a warning that RCAF Commander Gen. Pol Saroeun refused to deny (Soenthrith & Willemyns, 2013).
The period 1997–2013 reinforced the path dependence of a strongman personalizing control over a very frail democracy in Cambodia. These years also saw a much more unified and partisan RCAF become, together with the police, gendarmerie, and PMBU, a well-oiled regime security apparatus in the service of its patron Hun Sen.
A Tool of Disguised Dictatorship (2013–2019)
Following the election, the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), refused to accept the results and even refused to take its seats in parliament. At the same time, massive protests took place at Freedom Park in downtown Phnom Penh. Political pandemonium intensified. By 2018, the demonstrators had been repressed; the CNRP had been banned. and its leaders were either imprisoned or forced into exile. Such achievements necessitated Hun Sen’s further reliance on the military. He stimulated their support for him with a series of inducements. First, he guaranteed a continuing expansion of the defense budget (Turton, 2015), permitting salary increases for senior officers and opportunities for informal income on the side. Second, he used the tool of promotions, with the result that Cambodia today possesses perhaps the largest number of generals in the world—in excess of 2,000 (Dara & Turton, 2017)! Third, he guaranteed attractive postings for senior and intermediate-level officers. Indeed, Hun Sen “takes good care of his military cronies, rewarding those who work with him. He rarely changes ministers and other personnel” (Pou Sovachana, personal interview, 2014). Ultimately, by encouraging a partisan military and offering political positions to both active-duty and retired soldiers, Hun Sen has transformed the military into a loyal arm of his political machine rather than to any institutionalized Cambodian democracy. As Deputy RCAF Commander General Chea Dara stated in 2015, “I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the Cambodia People’s Party” (“Cambodia’s Armed Forces,” 2015). And the CPP by 2015 had become a mere vehicle for Hun Sen.
Military involvement in the July 2018 election not only guaranteed another CPP triumph at the polls but also a clamping down on post-poll dissent. Security officers were deployed across the country to campaign for the CPP and intimidate voters who might be considering voting for other parties or not voting. Such military partisanship is specifically prohibited under Cambodian law (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2018b). Just prior to the election, security forces used force against and/or detained journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters (HRW, 2018a). In the end, the CPP won every seat in parliament in what was clearly a sham election. Post-election, security officials have prevented demonstrations and detained suspected supporters of the forcibly dissolved CNRP, now called the Cambodian National Rescue Movement, which the government has branded as a terrorist movement.
In September 2018, a key reshuffle further personalized Hun Sen’s power in the military. The RCAF commander, joint chief of staff and army commander were all elevated to become senior ministers, replaced by younger blood. But the new chief of the Army was Hun Sen’s eldest son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet (Sovuthy, 2018). Manet also became an RCAF deputy commander and a member of the CPP’s Central Committee of the Permanent Committee. Manet’s ascension complemented the fact that Manet’s younger brother, Lt. Gen. Hun Manith, had earlier been elevated to become deputy chief of Defense Ministry Intelligence, and youngest brother, Hun Many, had already been appointed as a colonel in the PMBU.
With Hun Sen’s (and his family’s) hold firmly in place, 2018 returned Cambodia to a single-party dictatorship controlled by a dominant strongman—what the country had experienced in pre-1993 regimes dating back to independence. For the Cambodian military, this meant that its role was to become more interventionist and overt, as a loyal, clientelistic, yet privileged junior partner in Hun Sen’s patron-centered, personalized fiefdom.
Cambodia’s Military in 2019
The year 2019 has witnessed the increasing entrenchment of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). In 2011, Janes stated that the RCAF’s missions remained unchanged from what their prioritization in the mid-1980s: “support the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP); protect Hun Sen and his immediate cadre of allies; suppress internal opposition; and protect national sovereignty” (quoted in “Cambodian Royal Army,” 2018). But in 2019, with Hun Sen’s political power personalized above the party, the first and second missions have changed in order of importance: the RCAF protects, first and foremost, Hun Sen.
In terms of jurisdiction, the RCAF is under the Ministry of National Defense, the High Command, and the Mixed General Staff. Yet all three are under the Supreme Council for National Defense. Since 1993, this Council has been ornamentally chaired by the monarch (Articles 7, 23 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, 1993). Effectively, however, power rests with the vice-chair, who is the prime minister. Other members of this Council include the ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Interior, as well as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
Below the Council are the deputy supreme commanders, who double as commanders of their own respective units, such as Gen. Hun Manet, who also directs the army. Below this is the joint general staff, the duty of which is to coordinate between the services (Cambodian Ministry of National Defense, n.d.). The joint staff chief (Kun Kim) simultaneously serves as deputy commander of the RCAF. This Joint Staff is directly above the four services: the army (the largest service), navy, military police (gendarmerie), and tiny air force, with units geographically organized into five regions and one special region. Security service leaders are all closely linked to the prime minister and CPP (see table 1). Indeed, the promotion of security officials has tended to relate to their credentials as supporters of the CPP (interview with anonymous Cambodian security sector official, Phnom Penh, May 11, 2014). As for the national police, since 1979, they have been under the Ministry of Interior.
Table 1. Security Service Leaders in 2019 and Their Linkages to the CPP/Hun Sen
CPP Position/Link to Hun Sen
Lt. Gen. Vong Pisen
CPP Permanent Commission of the Central Committee member
Hun Manet, Kim Buntham, Chea Tara, Sao Sokha, Hing Bunhieng, Ith Sarath, Tea Vinh, Soeung Samnang, and others
RCAF Deputy Commanders
All members of at least the Central Committee of the CPP
Lt. Gen. Ith Sarath
RCAF Chief of Mixed Joint Staff
CPP Permanent Commission of the Central Committee Member
Lt. Gen. Hun Manet
Royal Cambodian Army Commander
CPP Permanent Commission of the Central Committee Member and Hun Sen’s first son
Adm. Tea Vinh
Royal Cambodian Navy Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Sao Sokha
Royal Gendarmerie Commander
CPP Permanent Commission of the Central Committee member
ACM Soeung Samnang
Royal Cambodian Air Force Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Hing Bun Heang
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Huot Chheang
RCAF Region 1 Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha
RCAF Region 2 Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Youang Sakhan
RCAF Region 3 Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Chea Man
RCAF Region 4 Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Bun Seng
RCAF Region 5 Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Prum Din
RCAF Special Region Commander
CPP Central Committee member
Lt. Gen. Neth Savoeun
National Police Supreme Commissioner
CPP Central Committee member
Brig. Gen. Hun Manith
Defense Ministry Military Intelligence Department director
CPP monitoring committee member and Hun Sen’s second son
Col. Hun Many
Serves in PMBU
Head of the Union of Youth Federations in Cambodia, a CPP youth wing, and Hun Sen’s third son
Beyond the RCAF and police is the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), which was set up in 1995 from RCAF Brigade 70, though a state decree in 2009 made the PMBU an autonomous unit. Specifically tasked with safeguarding the top leadership, it possesses at least 3,000 soldiers and 100 tanks, and it continues to grow (Path, 2018, p. 8). The PMBU acts as a praetorian guard for Hun Sen, especially because it answers only to the prime minister outside of the RCAF’s chain of command (personal interview with anonymous former editor of English-language newspaper in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, April 27, 2014). Beyond the PMBU, Hun Sen can rely on other paramilitaries such as the District Municipal Security Guards (DMSG), whose members were drawn from urban gangs (Hunt, 2014).
With regard to military finance, the RCAF’s defense budget represents the security needs of a relatively impoverished, dysfunctional state dominated by a regime seeking to forcibly perpetuate its hold over society. Though military spending diminished with the end of the Khmer Rouge insurgency in 1998–1999, it began to grow again in 2009 amid escalating border problems with Thailand. Although tensions with Thailand later faded, the government continued to increase the budget as it sought to reward and politicize the military against parliamentary opponents (see table 2).
Table 2. Cambodia’s Military Expenditures (1991–2019)
Current U.S. Millions $
Share of GDP
Percentage of Government Spending
The pattern of changes across time in the numbers of RCAF military personnel is similar to the budget. With the UN’s re-formation of the armed forces in 1993, the amount of personnel began to increase, reaching its apex during Prime Minister Hun Sen’s victory over the Khmer Rouge insurgents in 1998–1999. Then the state intentionally diminished the size of the RCAF, and it declined to 191,000 in 2005. But by 2009, frictions with Thailand prevented a further lessening in the number of personnel despite the 2008–2009 global recession. The number in 2019 remains at approximately 191,000 (see table 3), though there are also police, military police, special units, and paramilitaries tasked to prop up the regime.
Table 3. Armed Forces Personnel (1991–2017)
Number of Armed Forces Personnel
% of Total Labor Force
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, 2019.
The overwhelming power of the military today across Cambodia is reflected in several dimensions. Eighty percent to 90% of employees in Cambodia’s Defense Ministry (which oversees the Army, Navy, Air Force and Army Police) and Interior Ministry (which oversees the police) are active-duty security officials (personal interview with anonymous former editor of English-language newspaper in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, 2014; personal interview with anonymous senior Cambodian police official, Phnom Penh, March 27, 2014). In the area of local administration, there are active linkages between the CPP-led national government and the military, police, and other security forces that informally bypass and are effectively insulated from the decisions of locally elected bodies (Niazi, 2011). In terms of media, Cambodia’s military possesses two such outlets. Cambodian Channel 5 TV is co-owned by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in a joint venture with MICA Media Co. Ltd. Also, the Ministry of Defense (in a joint venture with MICA Media Co., Ltd.) operates Radio Station 5 (Military FM, 98.0 MHz), which itself is owned by TV 5 (LICADHO 2009). As for internal security in the countryside, though the central government formally controls it through the Ministry of Defense, local military commanders on the ground informally take charge of it themselves, leading to “institutionalized impunity” (Etcheson, 2005, p. 168). With a monopoly of force in rural areas, rural-based military commanders—in alliance with the CPP—have informally come to dominate provincial Cambodia. Such security forces are generally involved in evicting farmers from their lands (“Country for Sale,” 2009, p. 26).
Nevertheless, the military remains under the thumb of Hun Sen. The prime minister alone controls military reshuffles; his loyalists are in the top military positions; and he has balanced off various factions within the RCAF itself. Moreover, he offsets the military with other security organizations—the PMBU, gendarmerie, and police.
Meanwhile, almost all middle and senior officers within the police, navy, air force, and paramilitary simultaneously possess formal postings within Hun Sen’s CPP. For example, in 2015, the CPP, seeking to expand its dominance over the military, added at least 80 commanders and other officials with security duties to the CPP Central Committee (HRW, 2015). Despite being illegal, soldiers have engaged in pro-CPP events with legal impunity (ERA, 2013).
Hun Sen has distanced himself from the United States, the European Union, and to some extent Vietnam, instead tilting toward China. Thus, in terms of military diplomacy, the RCAF is expanding its ties with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. China is providing the RCAF with military assistance and trainings, and the two are engaging in joint “Dragon Gold” military exercises (Sokhean, 2019).
Using historical institutionalism, this article has argued that Cambodia’s historical legacy of authoritarianism has reinforced a path dependence of a strong, clientelistic military in Cambodia until today. At the beginning of the article, four questions were asked. First, what has accounted for the military’s intense involvement in Cambodia’s society and politics? When and how did the military become involved in Cambodia’s political system? What is the nature of civil–military relations today? How might the current role of the military in Cambodia best be characterized?
In answer to the first question, because the historical development of Cambodia’s military has involved a chronological path dependence of self-reproducing authoritarianism and patron–client relations dominated by autocratic personages, reinforced by numerous civil wars and interference by foreign powers, the Cambodian military has thus consistently tended to become involved in Cambodia’s society and politics. In answer to the second question, the military first became involved in politics in the mid-1950s, when Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk built up a strong military to bolster his rule. From then on, the armed forces continued to play a powerful role across the country. The military became involved in Cambodia’s political system precisely because strongman-dominated regimes needed a powerful military in order to rise to and then remain in power. In answer to the third question, civil–military relations today is best characterized as a mutual power relationship between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the military, with the military as an overt junior partner. A critical juncture in the Cambodian military’s evolution happened in 1979, when the armed forces, following the Vietnamese model, were re-organized to become a loyal arm to a dominant political party, what later became the CPP. In 2019, Hun Sen’s CPP has completely monopolized the Cambodian party system and the CPP’s control over the RCAF. Middle-ranking and senior military officers have been co-opted into senior CPP positions of power. Thus, civilian control under Hun Sen exists. Moreover, he has permitted his military a dominant role over society as long as it answers to him. In answer to the fourth question, the role of the military today might best be characterized as a partisan tool and client of Hun Sen alone.
There are four scenarios involving the future of Cambodia’s military. First and most likely is simply that the status quo will remain the same. Security forces will continue to be dominated by the patron Hun Sen and his CPP, which means that the path dependence of personalized control over an authoritarian client military persists unabated. Such a scenario would see the continuation of an authoritarian party system totally controlled by the CPP. A second, less likely scenario is that Hun Sen decides to use the armed forces to stage a coup, allowing him to purge both the military and civil society of suspected opponents. But this scenario assumes that he still has relevant opponents (e.g., only Interior Minister Sar Kheng comes to mind) in the country’s security forces or in society that he cannot handle without a coup. A third scenario is that Hun Sen recognizes that he needs to please Western countries and avoid dependence on China. He thus makes a deal with domestic political opponents so that they can return to Cambodia and resuscitate the country’s stalled democratization.
But for this scenario to be successful, any future opposition parties must allow the CPP to continue leading the governments. At the same time, the Cambodian military would have to preserve order for the benefit of democracy (which it would not), rather than for the CPP alone. The final scenario comes in the form of a question; What happens when Hun Sen is no longer ruling Cambodia? He may naturally die or gradually step down by handing over control, or he may be overthrown or forced to step down, perhaps by some sort of public revolt. Whatever happens, Hun Sen is clearly preparing his son Hun Manet to succeed him in what could become a dynasty of control for the Hun family. But Hun Sen’s pyramid of power over security forces may not last for long after he dies.
What could emerge instead is a return to the chaos of 1993–1997 or, worse, civil war, with military factions fighting against each other. Such an outcome could become another article in the continuing path of a powerful military dominated by a new strongman.
Since independence, Cambodia has witnessed the path dependence of personalist control over an armed forces practicing authoritarianism. The inertia of such a long-term historical legacy makes it likely that the nation’s armed forces will continue playing a major role in guaranteeing the personalized power of ruling Cambodian despots for many years to come.
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(1.) Patron–client relations involve a largely instrumental friendship in which an individual of higher economic status (patron) uses his or her own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (client) who, for his or her part, reciprocates by offering general support and assistance, including personal services, to the patron (Scott, 1977, p. 125).
(2.) The possibility exists that the death of Hok Lundy temporarily weakened Hun Sen’s political opponents, allowing him to replace Ke Kim Yan with a definite loyalist.