The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has played down suggestions its leader Sam Rainsy is inciting an uprising among patrolling troops, insisting a post he made on Facebook encouraging them to support the CNRP was aimed at calming tensions rather than inflaming them.
On his Facebook page on Friday, Rainsy, who is in the US, urged troops who have been on the streets since Thursday to prevent a CNRP protest to switch loyalties.
“All nephews, please help to urge all armed forces ... to join forces with the people, including the youth, who love our nation to demand a change of leaders this year,” he said. “The change will bring prosperity to our nation.”
Rainsy’s Facebook comments prompted a tough response from Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who told reporters on Saturday that inciting a rebellion in the armed forces could attract criminal charges for those responsible.
“Provoking armed forces to rebel would be a violation of the penal code. Any demonstration during such a time of chaos would be very dangerous. That’s why [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng issued a warning letter to those responsible for [mass demonstrations],” he said, referring to a letter sent to Rainsy on Thursday.
But CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday defended Rainsy’s comments, saying they were an effort to keep the peace rather than incite troops, who have patrolled the streets of Phnom Penh and some provinces since late last week.
“You can see the people are afraid,” he said. “So we want to bring a message to the military that if they are asked to do the wrong thing, to think twice.”
Asked if this meant directly turning against their commanders, Sovann said the CNRP just wanted to urge them not use any violence.
The CNRP disputes the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s claims to have won July 28’s election with 68 seats to 55 and believes a joint committee set up to review results will prove Rainsy’s party won by a slim margin. The NEC announced yesterday that its final preliminary election results will be released today, despite the pending investigation.
The harsh warnings appear to have done little to dampen Rainsy’s rhetoric. Yesterday, he continued posting about troops and threatening a mass demonstration if power isn’t handed over.
“Today, you can see clearly with your own eyes military police and armed forces personnel have shown up strongly to support the CNRP. So, all young people, don’t worry when you see them deployed on the roads,” he wrote.
“All of you have to smile at them and if you carry a bottle of water or a soft drink, you have to offer it to them and urge them to join together and wake up for change to save our nation and our lives.”
If the team investigating irregularities was still mired in controversy upon his return in several days, Rainsy continued, the CNRP will still “hold a huge demonstration to change the current leader”.
Again playing his president’s words down, Sovann said any such demonstration was still a “last choice” and a lot of room remained for a peaceful solution.
“So we appeal to the nation to keep calm.”
Rainsy’s comments came amid a weekend of uncertainty and – in some parts of the capital, fear – as hundreds of soldiers, military police and police patrolled in Phnom Penh and elsewhere.
The Ministry of Interior issued an order to officials nationwide on Saturday to remain on duty “for all Cambodians” and to patrol in a way that would not inflame tensions.
Interior Minister Kheng, who signed the directive, said the military response was prompted by Rainsy’s repeated calls for mass demonstrations, and the Ministry of Interior was prepared to use all personnel at its disposal.
“We have no wish to threaten people, but the government has duties to protect security and peace,” he said. “If the demonstrations are peaceful, I assure you, there really will be no problem.”
Civil society groups have expressed concern over the troop deployment and the affect it could have on reaching a peaceful resolution.
“We urge all sides to try their best to find a peaceful solution to the problem, and we are concerned about a heated situation, because there remains a big gulf between the CPP and CNRP,” said Thun Saray, a director of election-monitoring watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. “If this remains ... we’re concerned over an increase in tensions.”
Cambodia Defenders Project executive director Sok Sam Oeun said for something to be considered to be incitement, it needed to be direct in its message.
“Incitement means saying something to convince people to commit crimes,” he said. “You must be specific about it.
“If [Rainsy] is convincing soldiers to raise arms against the government, maybe he’s in trouble, but if he’s just saying, ‘join a peaceful demonstration’, then that’s fine.”