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Cambodia Announces Corporate Sponsorship for Armed Forces

Monday, March 22, 2010

Simmering tensions along Cambodia's border with Thailand has prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to deploy a series of new initiatives to bolster his country's military.

The moves range from an old-fashioned show of muscle in the form of missile tests and military exercises, to corporate sponsorship of the armed forces that has angered humanitarian groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Analysts said the moves can be traced to the periodic border clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops near the ruins of the 11th-century temple, Preah Vihear, where a military standoff has resulted in occasional bloodshed since mid-2008.

Hun Sen declared that more than 40 partnerships had been established with businesses to provide food, medicine, tools, buildings and transport for Cambodian troops and their families. One of the businesses named was Metfone, a subsidiary of a mobile phone company owned by the Vietnamese military. Rubber plantations, a television network and an oil company were among the other companies to sign up for the deal. Another company mentioned was ANZ Royal, a joint partnership between Australia's ANZ Bank and one of Cambodia's biggest business conglomerates, the Royal Group. In Melbourne, ANZ denied any involvement with military sponsorship, saying it would be inappropriate.

Hun Sen is personally overseeing the program, which has angered humanitarian groups. London-based Global Witness has called on donor countries to condemn the sponsorship plan, saying it would lead to businesses receiving military protection in exchange for financial backing. But Cambodia's ambassador to the U.K., Hor Nambora, warned Global Witness to stop meddling in Cambodia's internal affairs and threatened legal action.

The program is seen as an effort to fund the Cambodian military at a time of heightened bilateral tensions with Thailand over Preah Vihear, as well as over Phnom Penh's support for Thailand's former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup.

As the deal was being put together, Cambodia also conducted its missile tests, the first public drill since the country's civil war ended more than a decade ago. About 200 rockets were fired from truck-mounted launchers at an airfield about 110 miles from the Thai border. Hun Sen, not known for his subtlety, called the tests "a normal drill and preparation to defend the nation in case there is an invasion."

At the same time, Hun Sen won some support from the United States with the announcement that around 1,000 soldiers from 23 countries will undertake military exercises in Cambodia in July, as part of the U.S.-funded Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI).

Details of the maneuvers were confirmed during talks with U.S. Adm. William Crowe earlier this month and were designed to "enable Cambodia to sustain and improve its peacekeeping missions in the future."

Cambodia has previously sent peacekeepers to Sudan, and more than 200 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers will depart for Chad and the Central African Republic next month to supplement a contingent of peacekeepers deployed to both countries last November.