Defense Minister Tea Banh Awarded ‘Samdech’ Honorific

Defense Minister Tea Banh has been bestowed with Cambodia’s highest honorific, according to a royal decree signed on Saturday, just months after he threatened to “smash the teeth” of anyone who dared to contest election results with protests.

With the title “Samdech,” which translates roughly to “The Greatest,” General Banh joins a small but rapidly growing cohort of senior CPP leaders that includes Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife Bun Rany, and deceased former party president Chea Sim.

Defense Minister Tea Banh attends an inauguration ceremony at the National Defense University in Phnom Penh last year, in this photograph posted to his Facebook page.

The decree signed by King Norodom Sihamoni lists General Banh’s full title as “Samdech Pichey Sena,” or “The Greatest, Special, Victorious Commander.” The decree describes the defense minister, who sits on the ruling party’s standing committee, as a “great leader, loyal to the throne, defending democracy and nation.”

In a letter signed the same day, Mr. Hun Sen congratulated his close ally on what he said was 40 years of service to the country. 

“Samdech is capable and loyal to carry out the win-win policies, bringing about peace, reconciliation, territorial unity and development,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

The general made international headlines in May when he said the armed forces were prepared to “smash the teeth” of those who lost the June 4 commune elections but did not accept the results, in a pointed reference to the CNRP’s mass protests in the wake of the disputed 2013 national election.

The statement drew heated criticism from rights groups, election monitors and international donors, including U.S. Ambassador William Heidt.

Gen. Banh and CPP spokesman Sok Eysan could not be reached for comment.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday the decision was symptomatic of the system under the CPP.

“In a truly democratic country, a Defense Minister calling for teeth smashing of the opposition would at least be called to account for his words in Parliament, but in Cambodia rewards and praise flow instead,” he said in an email.

“Day by day, bit by bit, Cambodia’s democracy dies in a growing darkness.”

Prominent Cambodia historian David Chandler wrote in an email that he had never heard of the title being granted before then-Prince Sihanouk. The prince bestowed the title on several civilians, including former prime ministers Penn Nouth and Son Sann and later, as king, Mr. Hun Sen.

But the title, once confined largely to monks and royalty, has become increasingly common among aging CPP members in recent years. Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Senate President Say Chhum were granted the title in 2015, while former Deputy Prime Minister Sok An joined the ranks of Samdechs just days before his death in March.

“Samdech is a title which, though it is of royal origin, has evolved to become a general honorific,” wrote Astrid Noren-Nilsson, author of “Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy.”

“Of course this has to do with legitimacy, present and future, but also with cementing authority and establishing standing within the party.”

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