Some three hours’ drive from the scenes of violence unfolding in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park yesterday, the Cambodia National Rescue Party found distance no remedy for what it termed a calculated attempt at intimidation.
As authorities blocked roads leading to a planned public meeting at the CNRP’s Kampong Cham headquarters yesterday morning, more than 1,000 ruling party supporters gathered outside to “protest” against the event.
Cambodian People’s Party protesters, many holding short bamboo poles with Cambodian flags, had earlier assembled both in and outside the grounds of the hotel where CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha was staying, yelling through loudspeakers and holding signs condemning Sokha and party leader Sam Rainsy.
In the meantime, military trucks had blocked National Road 4 leading to the CNRP provincial office in Kampong Siem district to prevent opposition supporters expecting to meet Sokha from accessing the venue.
The tactics follow the forced cancellation of a similar CNRP event in Kandal’s Sa’ang last Tuesday out of fears of violence after hundreds of intimidating men along with riot and military police gathered in the vicinity.
By 10am yesterday, only a few hundred supporters had managed to gather at the opposition party office, while a huge number of CPP protesters assembled along the road outside behind baton-wielding police ostensibly there to protect the CNRP event.
Som Phy, the head of a local CPP youth group from Cheung Prey district, told the Post that his party superior had asked him to find a handful of people to attend the counter-protest.
“[The CNRP] always insult the government and call us ‘yuon’ [a term for Vietnamese]. [But] most of their complaints are not true at all. We don’t like it,” he said.
Like many of the men assembled, who held signs with slogans such as “We commit to protect the legal government,” Phy insisted that he had not arrived with the intention of violence and that he was an unpaid volunteer. “I come here for non-violence, but I maintain the right [to defend myself]. If they provoke us, we will attack them back,” he said.
“Don’t think this kind of police can stop us.”
Another young man, who declined to be named, said: “I came here to show my support for the prime minister and to protect [our] institutions, to protect the election results and to stop the CNRP from inciting the workers.”
Speaking at a press conference in Phnom Penh later in the day, Sokha said the CPP had purposely tried to stop him from meeting with supporters by first surrounding his hotel and then following him and blocking his car when he tried to drive to the event.
“The Cambodian People’s Party is still [practicing] worthless politics in using thugs to bother, block and intimidate supporters of [the CNRP],” he told reporters.
“Before, [the CPP] did not allow us to [rally] in Freedom Park, then they didn’t allow us to march in Phnom Penh, and now we are [gathering] in our own offices in the provinces and they still bother us more. This means the right to practice political activities has been ended by [the CPP].”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, secretaries of state Prum Sokha and Sak Sitha, and Kampong Cham provincial governor Lun Lim Thai could not be reached for comment.
Kampong Siem district governor Kim Dy, however, dismissed allegations that the authorities had organised the CPP supporters to protest, and said police and other forces had only attended the event to protect the CNRP.
“[These are] people who support the Cambodian People’s Party. As I heard, they were saying that they want to protect the legal royal government and protect the constitution,” he said.
“On the other hand, they said that the [CNRP] always say that yuon voted, so they came to shout loudly ‘[are we] yuon or Khmer?’ They [also] heard that [CNRP] leaders have claimed that if the [CPP] holds a demonstration, only a few people would attend, so they wanted to express that [election] votes were not only for the [CNRP].”
Kuoy Bunroeun, head of the opposition’s working group in negotiations with the CPP, said that requests to ruling party officials yesterday to intervene had been ignored.
A week ago Prime Minister Hun Sen called on his supporters in a speech in Kratie to prepare themselves to “fight” against the CNRP.
Yesterday, Sokha said it was clear that those orders were being followed.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, said authorities were “failing their legally mandated duty” by allowing CPP supporters to intimidate the opposition and hold protests against them at such close quarters. “[The CPP] behave in a state with the rule of the jungle. They are above the law. They can do anything.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH