Troops from the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit will descend nightly on the opposition’s Phnom Penh headquarters, the unit’s commander warned yesterday, as senior military and police lined up to back the premier’s threatened crackdown on a planned “mass demonstration” by the CNRP.
Political tensions continued to rise yesterday on the back of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s decision to mobilise supporters in response to a raft of legal cases against its members and senior leadership, which many see as state-backed litigation designed to neutralise the government’s opponents.
Just hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned he would “absolutely not” allow any opposition protests, truckloads of armed troops from his personal bodyguard unit descended on CNRP HQ at about midnight yesterday.
Accompanied by scores of smaller security force vehicles, the trucks stopped for about 30 minutes outside the building, where CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha is holed up to avoid arrest.
The vehicles then made several passes of the compound over the next hour, while military vessels were spotted nearby in the Bassac River, which runs behind the property.
In a statement released yesterday morning, the CNRP slammed the use of the armed forces to “intimidate” the party and general public.
It also criticised the impact on the current voter registration drive and approaching elections.
“How can people consider this country peaceful while there is military movement,” asked CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, adding the party would press ahead with plans to organise demonstrations.
However, contacted yesterday morning, Bodyguard Unit commander Hing Bun Heang defended the unit’s “rights to maintain security”, criticised the CNRP’s plans to create “insecurity” and “disorder” and warned such “exercises” would continue.
“Not only last night, but tonight, tomorrow night – and we’ll keep doing it,” he added. “If you’re concerned, it is your business. This exercise is for the security, safety and public order of the people.”
As the day wore on, Bun Heang’s comments were echoed by senior security force and government figures.
Vowing action, government spokesman Phay Siphan called the planned protests a “rebellion”. Backing the prime minister, Defence Ministry spokesman Chum Socheat said the ministry had warned its people to “stay away” from any demonstrations, while stating soldiers were “ready” to stop the “illegal protest”.
“We must protect the government,” Socheat said.
This was reiterated in an official Defence Ministry statement that vowed to implement Hun Sen’s order “strongly and effectively” and said the military would “sacrifice everything” to “protect the nation”.
Meanwhile, in an interview with local media, Kun Kim, deputy commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, went as far as calling the CNRP’s announcement itself against the law.
“The CNRP . . . does not demand rights for the people . . . it is a mass demonstration to protect a wrongdoer,” he said in reference to the party’s acting president, Kem Sokha.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak also suggested the CNRP’s announcement of a protest was in itself a crime that could spark legal action, but offered no specific statute that would be enforced.
Sopheak also defended the apparent absence of a National Police presence in the government’s response thus far. “The police will also act, but [I] will not reveal [the plans],” he said. The military’s mobilisation marks a further step in a steady deterioration of Cambodia’s political situation over the past year.
Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution authored by Congressman Alan Lowenthal calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to “end all harassment and intimidation of Cambodia’s opposition”.
The bill, which called for the US to support electoral reform efforts in Cambodia to ensure free and fair elections, demanded the government “drop all politically motivated charges against opposition lawmakers”. As it stands, two opposition elected representatives are imprisoned pending trial; cases have been brought against three more; and Sokha and CNRP president Sam Rainsy have both been sentenced to jail time.
Convicted last Friday, Sokha faces five months in jail for refusing to appear as a witness in a prostitution case involving a purported mistress, while Rainsy fled abroad last year to avoid a two-year jail term over an eight-year-old defamation and incitement case.
In a video posted on his Facebook page on Sunday, Rainsy, speaking at a pagoda in France, called on CNRP supporters to join the protest, suggesting the date of October 23, as it marked the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement, which laid the foundation for Cambodia’s democratic system.
If “tens of thousands” of Cambodians at every “commune, district and provincial” level protested, the government would not be able to stop the demonstration, Rainsy said. “We must organise this plan,” he said.
But Sovann, the spokesman, said no date for the protest had been set as the organising committee had yet to be formed.
Acknowledging the party was “worried about the risk” of violence, he said the party was still seeking to negotiate with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and was attempting to reach out to more receptive elements within its ranks.
It had yet to get any response, he said.
“It is not our responsibility to protect the security of people, it is the government’s,” he added. “We have no other choice [but to protest].”
But at least one opposition member said that he believes the party is making the wrong move.
The source, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said the party should avoid taking to the streets and hold firm until the election, rather than giving the CPP further pretext to “crush” the group.
“We mobilise people for two or three days and then what? They will have the excuse to crush us completely,” he said.
“You cannot win using a people’s movement at his time; it is not the right time.”