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Cambodia’s Military Apparatus Overhauled Ahead of Tense Election

FILE PHOTO - General Pol Saroeun, left, and General Sao Sokha, right, are pictured entering a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2017. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

Sao Sokha has previously attributed his success in the security forces to an affinity with the methods employed by German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

A close aide to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his eldest son have been promoted to the leading roles in the Cambodian military ahead of July’s general election, according to a report.

According to the Deum Ampil news report, which cited a source in the defense ministry, Sao Sokha, the military police commander and close associate of Hun Sen, and the longtime leader’s son, Hun Manet, were promoted to the roles of acting commander-in-chief and acting deputy commander-in-chief, respectively.

They replaced Pol Saroeun, former commander-in-chief, and his deputy Meas Sophea. Kun Kim, one of the joint chiefs of staff, also left his post in the reshuffle. All three of the senior regime figures were legally obliged to leave their military roles as they are standing for election.

Defense Minister Tea Banh declined to confirm the report when contacted by VOA, saying the three parliamentary candidates had applied for “special permission” to run for office, insinuating the change may be temporary.

He added that an official announcement would be made on June 30.

Sokha rose to prominence in the aftermath of armed clashes in July 1997 when Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist faction was forced from government by forces aligned with Hun Sen.

He also presided over a deadly crackdown on protesters and striking garment workers following the 2013 election.

Sokha has previously attributed his success in the security forces to an affinity with the methods employed by German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Manet is a U.S.-educated West Point graduate with growing foreign policy experience who has in the past been tipped as a possible successor to Hun Sen.

Sophal Ear, a political scientist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the reshuffle was “musical chairs”.

“These are people who have held positions of power for a very long time, they are simply going to take off their military uniform and put on a National Assembly uniform.

“Same same, but different. Of course, it means very little than to have any kind of firewall preventing conflicts of interest when serving the military and serving the party.”

Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University professor who has studied the armed forces of South East Asia, said the reshuffle suggested Manet was being groomed for the top job.

“We can see the reshuffle as installing more youthful leadership to the military but also as a means of further personalizing Hun Sen's control over it in the face of rising popular dissent,” he said.

Sokha declined to comment on Wednesday, while Manet could not be reached. A ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman could also not be reached.

(Correction: The previous version of this story addressed Mr. Sao Sokha as “the former military police commander.” In fact, Mr. Sokha remains the incumbent commander of the military police while assuming the role as acting commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.)