Dozens of armoured personnel carriers, at least 100 military police and a number of shipping containers have quietly been amassed at a previously scarcely used base in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district ahead of this Saturday’s opposition rally.
Residents and military police officers said the forces had begun moving into the base, which is near the Prek Pnov bridge, about one month ago, while the shipping containers had been brought in about two weeks ago.
A group of military police officers having a boozy picnic on the outskirts of the base on Monday told reporters they had come from provinces across the country to do exercises and “protect the safety of the people” but shied away from further questions.
The base, located on the site of a former Chinese resort that was demolished in 2007, is just one of more than a dozen military installations in and around the capital.
Last month, military officials said thousands of soldiers and police from across the country were being deployed to Phnom Penh to maintain security. Quartered in makeshift bases around town, the soldiers cut an uneasy presence.
While some residents have expressed trepidation about their new neighbours, Prek Pnov commune chief Pich Sinuon insisted there was nothing to be alarmed about.
“I do not know where the military police came from. It is their internal issue, but there is no reason that residents should be afraid of them or tanks. It is for keeping social order and national security,” he said.
Construction on the base, he said, had begun in 2007, though residents said that it had since been used only sporadically for ceremonial preparations.
Though not overtly worried about potential violence, those living near the base said to a man they were uneasy about the presence of forces and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The number of forces at the base had swelled to between 150 and 200 military personnel, who conducted drills daily alongside their APCs, a 43-year-old vendor said on Tuesday.
“I feel surprised with a little fear when seeing the unusual movement from the provinces, but we do not know where to go because our home is here,” he said, adding he did not dare approach the base for fear of being accused of spying.
As for fighting, he continued, he wasn’t particularly concerned about an outbreak of violence. After all, only “one side” had guns.
An assistant to National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito, who declined to give her name, said yesterday, “It’s not as serious as you think; it was just training”.
She could not explain exactly what the purpose of the shipping containers was, stating simply that she believed they were Japanese and used for training, before directing further questions to another official who directed questions back to Kheng Tito, who could not be reached for comment.
Officers at the base this week could be seen performing drills with riot shields during the day. Much of the time, however, they appeared to simply meander around the base washing clothes, bathing and playing volleyball.
A 53-year-old resident living alongside the base said military officers and APCs had been transported into the base at nighttime.
“Many more came after the election. They walked across my land, but they never caused any problem with us,” he said, pointing to a line of APCs inside the base, which is the size of several football fields.
Another vendor said four or five military police officers had been guarding the Prek Pnov bridge since the election, though they had not been stopping any vehicles.
Minding her baby son at her roadside drink shop, a 30-year-old woman said she had grown familiar with the site of large numbers of troops and military vehicles in Battambang province when the government was fighting Pol Pot’s forces [in the 1980s and ’90s].
“I see tanks [APCs] and armed police every day, and I am getting used to it. It’s not scary,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA AND DAVID BOYLE