Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday slammed critics on social media for misinterpreting the government’s move to hold a disaster rescue exercise with Vietnamese soldiers in Svay Rieng province this week.
Mr Hun Sen during a graduation ceremony on Koh Pich said Cambodian forces are planning to hold the disaster rescue exercise near the Vietnamese border in Svay Rieng tomorrow.
Mr Hun Sen said critics have been accusing the government of planning to allow an invasion by Vietnamese troops.
“Why are we holding a joint disaster rescue exercise? Because we want to strengthen rescue efforts along the border,” he said. “It is my initiative as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia – I requested to have this joint military exercise conducted with Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.”
“It is not an invasion at all,” he said.
Mr Hun Sen noted he asked Vietnamese soldiers in 2011 to help evacuate more than 200 Cambodian families in Ratanakiri province to a safe area across the border due to flooding.
“We have suffered from many disasters like the one in 2011 in Ratanakiri province,” Mr Hun Sen said. “I made a call to Hanoi to get intervention from Vietnamese troops. They cooperated with Cambodian soldiers to evacuate people to safe areas in Vietnam because we could not do it here.”
He said natural disasters are unpredictable and cooperation from neighbouring countries like Vietnam is needed.
“Disasters like earthquakes occur in Asean countries. Therefore, we must be prepared in advance,” Mr Hun Sen said. “This exercise was Hun Sen’s initiative. I want to protect my people from danger. Cross-border assistance…is not trespassing.”
A Facebook user who goes by Sun Sarath said: “Three communes in Svay Rieng province’s Svay Tiep district were designated by the government as a ‘White Zone’, which allows Vietnamese forces to be stationed there.”
However, the notion was denied by the armed forces.
General Phorn Nara, secretary-general at the National Authority for the Prohibition of Chemical, Nuclear, Biological and Radiological Weapons, said his unit will participate in the upcoming exercise in Svay Rieng’s Chantrea district.
He said the exercise is meant to bolster disaster relief.
“We have already inspected the actual pitch,” Gen Nara said. “This exercise is between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the People’s Army of Vietnam. It will be conducted along the border.”
Defence Ministry spokesman General Chhum Sucheat yesterday said he could not reveal how many soldiers are going to partake in the exercise, but he noted it will be “large-scale”.
However, General Ith Sarath, RCAF’s deputy commander-in-chief, told Khmer Times 1,143 soldiers will participate, including 471 Vietnamese troops.
Gen Sucheat also said it is not an invasion.
“Our joint disaster rescue exercise will be beneficial to the people from both countries, the troops from both nations will intervene to help each other when we have any disasters in the future,” he said. “The most important thing is that the joint exercise is purely in preparation for a humanitarian mission. We just want to strengthen the military cooperation with our neighbouring countries. We are also discussing with Thailand and Laos whether we can do the same exercise with them.”
Gen Sucheat noted Defence Minister General Tea Banh will lead a delegation in Vietnam from tomorrow until Sunday.
He said Gen Banh and his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich are due to preside over the event’s opening ceremony along Svay Rieng and Vietnam’s Long An province.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, yesterday said lack of information dissemination by the Defence Ministry over the joint exercise with Vietnam caused public confusion.
“When people saw Vietnamese troops mobilising in our territory, they feel as if those foreign soldiers were violating our sovereignty,” Mr Phea said.
He noted the exercise will bring benefits to Cambodians and Vietnamese citizens.
“This joint exercise will help strengthen the rescue abilities of both nations,” Mr Phea said. “It also reflects good cooperation between two armed forces. The Kingdom is not only conducting military exercises with China – any country is welcomed to do so.”