When Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy failed to land in Phnom Penh last weekend, he lost a high-stakes bet with his bitter political rival Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The exiled politician, despite facing likely arrest, had vowed to return to Cambodia if his detained colleague Kem Sokha was not freed by March 3; Hun Sen had pledged to resign if Kem Sokha, now held for 18 months on treason charges, was released.

While the wager was highly choreographed political theater, Sam Rainsy upped the ante through a social media call on the armed forces to abandon Hun Sen and side with his now-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the latest of his calls for a military mutiny.

“Sam Rainsy appeals to the Armed Forces to stop defending Hun Sen and his family who embody a dictatorial and traitorous regime and to instead defend the people who will rise up to demand freedom and justice,” he posted on Facebook.

The ties that bind the Royal Cambodia Armed Forces (RCAF) elite and Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been ironclad since the party came to power in 1979.

Analysts say it is hard to identify a senior military official who is not also a high-ranking member of the CPP or a family member of the CPP-dominated political elite.

Hun Manet attends a sporting event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 2018. Photo: Reuters

Last year, Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, was named the second-highest ranking military official, while another of his sons now runs the military’s intelligence unit. Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s son, meanwhile, was promoted to lieutenant general last year.

Local analysts sometimes quip that Cambodia’s armed forces are more an armed wing of the CPP than a national military.

But Sam Rainsy clearly believes there are unseen divisions in the armed forces, including between wealthy top brass and poorly paid lower ranking soldiers, that he hopes to exploit in divide-and-rule fashion. He could also play on intra-military resentment of Hun Sen’s alleged nepotism at the top of the military’s apex.

Months after his CNRP was dissolved in November 2017 for allegedly plotting a “color revolution” in cahoots with the US, Sam Rainsy made an appeal to soldiers not to “obey orders from any dictators if they order you to shoot and kill innocent people.”

With populist panache, he said that if Hun Sen was ever forced from power by CNRP-aligned mutinous forces that he would seize “the wealth of those generals” who stood by Hun Sen and “share with the soldiers.”

In late January, Sam Rainsy was again on Facebook calling for “the armed forces not to stand by the current dictatorial and traitorous regime, but to be instead on the side of the people who are demanding freedom and justice.”

The government has repeatedly said that if Sam Rainsy lands at Phnom Penh’s international airport then he will be immediately arrested for a slew of criminal convictions, including defamation charges, most analysts view as politically motivated.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Saturday. The exiled politician and his party members have come under rising political pressure ahead of crucial elections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Some observers believe that an even harsher fate could befall the outspoken opposition leader if he dared to return to the Cambodian capital.

But Sam Rainsy seems to believe he would be greeted by hundreds of thousands of loyal CNRP supporters if and when he returns from exile in France, where he has resided since 2015 and has spent previous periods of self-exile.

In January, he said his return would “help trigger a positive change in Cambodia”, possibly leading to Hun Sen’s downfall. “In this year 2019 we must get rid of the traitorous Hun Sen regime and give Cambodia back to the Cambodian people,” he recently wrote in another social media post.

The military’s top brass is putting forward a unified stance.

In late January, Ministry of Defense spokesman General Chhum Sucheat said the RCAF “respects and strictly obeys the Prime Minister’s orders … to thwart traitors’ attempts to create a color revolution and destroy the peace of the Cambodian people,” he said, referring to Sam Rainsy. “RCAF asks all personnel not to follow Sam Rainsy’s appeal.”

Around the same time, Defense Minister General Tea Banh told local media that the RCAF takes its “orders from [Hun Sen] no matter what.”

Sam Rainsy has clearly been animated by the current crisis in Venezuela, where the military holds the balance as long as it sides with authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro against opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has recently claimed the presidency.

While the RCAF could be in a similar position if a political crisis attended by disruptive pro-CNRP street protests erupted in Cambodia, few analysts see a scenario where commanding officers would break ranks.

Cambodia’s armed forces in a show of force ahead of last year’s general election, July 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

It is possible that Sam Rainsy is making calls for a military mutiny to stoke an angry response from Hun Sen and the CPP, which would further dim the government’s already poor image in Western capitals.

The US has already imposed sanctions on Cambodia for the CNRP’s dissolution and last July’s one-sided general election, which effectively turned the country into a one-party state. The European Union is also threatening to punitively remove Cambodia from a preferential trade scheme that would devastate its economy.

Still, there are certain signs that Sam Rainsy’s calls are jangling Hun Sen’s nerves. In a February phone call leaked to local media, Hun Sen told his security forces they “must be patient and not respond” to Sam Rainsy’s provocative comments.

Hun Sen added in the call that Sam Rainsy should not become a “focal point” of government rhetoric, lest the US and EU start to demand his return. Both are known to be pressing for Kem Sokha’s release and the CNRP’s reinstatement, while Sam Rainsy’s safe return to Cambodia is believed to be lower on their agenda.

“Over the years, Hun Sen has created and developed a core of security force officers who have ruthlessly and violently carried out his orders,” stated Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a watchdog, at the launch last year of its 213-page “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals” report.

Even with Hun Sen’s command over top-ranking officers, he has moved aggressively to consolidate his authority at the RCAF’s apex.

During last July’s general election, Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, told Asia Times that changes in the military’s hierarchy resembled a “secret coup.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who many think is being groomed to take over from his father some time after the July 29 elections. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Three of the most senior military officials – including Pol Saroeun, the RCAF’s commander-in-chief, and Kun Kim, chief of the RCAF’s joint staff – stepped down from their posts so they could run in the election to become CPP-affiliated lawmakers.

Former RCAF deputy commander-in-chief Meas Sophea, who also stepped down from the military, won a parliamentary seat but quickly resigned reportedly after a request by CPP decision-makers.

His seat was handed to another CPP member, but he was given a ministerial position as a deputy prime minister, of which there are dozens. Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim were also appointed as senior ministers in the government.

Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, and Sao Sokha, who became deputy commander-in-chief of the RCAF as well as national military police commander, took their places.

Vong Pisen, formerly the deputy commander-in-chief of the National Military Police, was surprisingly promoted to RCAF commander-in-chief, the military’s highest ranking position.
While he nominally holds the military’s top spot, some analysts think that Hun Manet wields more actual power.

Indeed, last September five special units were moved from under the RCAF’s High Command, headed by Vong Pisen, to the control of the Royal Cambodian Army, Hun Manet’s purview.

“These hints of a changing distribution of power within the RCAF have led some observers to suggest that Vong Pisen’s new position is ‘merely ceremonial’ – that Hun Manet is now the real force of power in the nation’s military,” Jonathan Sutton, of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, wrote in October.

“Together with the marked lack of change within the CPP following the election, others have argued that Hun Sen is making these moves because he still does not fully trust the military or other senior elites outside his own family,” he wrote at the time.

Hun Sen (R) shakes hands with Defense Minister Tea Banh during the Khmer New Year, April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The allegiances of those lower down the military pecking order are even less clear. Last June, Tea Banh made a nationwide appeal to military commanders to stop cutting the pay of soldiers, which has reportedly become a common problem. Commanders argue it is necessary to pay for the rest of their military units, but critics say the pay cuts are plain and pure corruption.

Defense spending has increased every year (except in 2016) over the last decade, in line with the country’s economic growth. This year’s budget allocates US$604 million to the Ministry of Defense, up 11% from 2018. The figure doesn’t take into consideration the money Cambodia’s military receives from its foreign partners.

Last year, China pledged roughly $100 million in military aid, the latest in a host of similar grants from Beijing. Nor does it factor in the money the military makes from its economic activities, which are vast and controversial, including its proven role in illegal timber logging and export.

It is often difficult to tell apart a company owned by a well-connected military official – technically a violation of the RCAF’s laws – and those that simply pay military units for protection, That blurred line includes gold mines operated by WS Mining, a company owned by Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s daughter, according to reports.

In its 2016 “Hostile Takeover” report, the corruption watchdog Global Witness noted that private firms, many run by well-connected owners, also “sponsor” military units, sometimes overtly.

This allegedly includes Bayon TV, a major television network also owned by Hun Mana, as well as companies owned by major tycoons like Try Pheap, who reportedly officially sponsors four battalions (101, 102, 103 and 825) and whose middlemen in government dealings “originate mostly from the military at provincial and national level,” Global Witness, another watchdog, stated in an earlier report.

A Cambodian soldier on patrol in a forest area. Photo: Facebook

Despite the wealth available to those at the higher levels of the military, it’s not clear it liberally trickles down. Last year, Hun Sen announced a raise in salaries for military personnel, with the lowest-ranked soldiers and military police receiving between $260 and $275 per month.

That is higher than the average wage in Cambodia, one of the region’s poorest countries, but a pittance compared to the often ostentatiously shown wealth of the military elite.

Frustration was aired after a video recently went viral on social media showing Kim Reaksmey, a military police commander in eastern Ratanakkiri province, handing each of his five children $500,000 during a birthday celebration.

He was subsequently sacked on Hun Sen’s order and the Anti-Corruption Unit has started investigations into the case. Ratanakkiri province is home to much of Cambodia’s illegal logging, of which the military is often controversially linked.

Sam Rainsy is no doubt trying to sow divisions between low and high-ranking military officials, whose salaries and lifestyles are worlds apart.

But while his calls for a mutiny have so far failed to make a stir, he is arguably hitting on one of the few areas where Hun Sen and his CPP may yet be vulnerable to a destabilizing backlash.