As Cambodia's armed forces turned 61 over the weekend, Minister of Defence Tea Banh took the opportunity to remind opponents of the ruling party of the military’s might.
Speaking passionately at the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ (RCAF) anniversary celebrations on Saturday, Banh warned that opposition to the Cambodian People’s Party would not be tolerated.
“The Ministry of Defence totally opposes any individual who wants to take down the government and make society go backwards,” he said
Banh also defended the actions of the RCAF in the wake of last year’s disputed national election, when forces violently cracked down on numerous demonstrations.
“After the election results were announced, the RCAF participated and fulfilled their obligation … to maintain national peace, based on the constitution and other general legal statutes for the RCAF,” he said. “We strongly follow the orders.… We support the government’s policy.”
But activist monk Venerable Luon Sovath said that the military used its power to stop people demanding basic rights, not the overthrow of the government.
“The government has a role to guarantee people’s safety, but it should not mistake monks and people who protest to protect land, forests, and freedom of expression with toppling the government,” he said.
Sovath, alongside members of the Khmer People Power Movement, is to stand trial at Phnom Penh Municipal Court later this month on charges of treason and obstructing electoral procedures.
But, he said, he did not understand “what moves are classified as [attempting to] down the government”.
“Here people just protest to protect their farmland, houses and social justice, but they are accused of overthrowing the government, which means people are threatened to stop protesting” altogether, he said.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator with rights group Adhoc, agreed that the military has used its position to threaten protesters and discourage them from further action.
“Such threats gravely affect human rights and make society go backwards,” he said.