Defence Minister Tea Banh expressed indifference to the threat of international sanctions being levied on government officials and the Cambodian economy on Saturday, while ordering his military to be ready to destroy any attempts at an alleged “colour revolution” or popular demonstration over the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Banh seemed to be taking a cue from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who at a Cabinet meeting on Friday said he was unconcerned about sanctions, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told Reuters.
Speaking in Stung Treng in front of top military generals and about 3,000 troops from infantry Brigade 128, which was created in August, he instructed the troops not to let the threat of sanctions deter them from using force.
“Some people worry once they heard about the sanctions and others seem to be scared. I am not scared at all and not even a single hair moves [in response],” Banh said.
In response to a political crackdown that has targeted the opposition, human rights organisations and the media, observers and members of the opposition have called for targeted sanctions against government officials, including visa bans and a freezing of assets abroad. Last week, United States Republican Senator Ted Cruz called for a travel ban on certain government officials if Sokha is not released from prison by November 9.
Speaking to the brigade yesterday, however, Banh seemed to goad the international community into taking such a step – saying “please freeze” and claiming that visa bans are of no importance as “we do not want to go” to countries to which travel might be restricted.
The US Embassy declined to comment yesterday and media requests to other embassies regarding sanctions remained unanswered last week.
Political commentator Meas Nee said Banh’s comments, while appearing to convey resolve, betrayed the ruling party’s real concerns – that it must do all it can to hold on to power, for which it may face punishment.
“He tries to calm down officials,” he said. “They are not sure whether they’ll be able to win [the elections] . . . So they try to undermine the opposition party and must take all consequences.”
These, he said, may include freezing assets, a “big concern” for government officials, many of whom have investments abroad.
In his speech to troops, the defence minister called for the military to suppress an alleged “colour revolution” – a term originally used for popular movements in former Soviet bloc countries that has become ubiquitous in Cambodia as a catch-all phrase for virtually all political dissent – “until 2018 or the end of 2018”, or else the country would descend into chaos. He added that soldiers did not need advance permission from superiors to smash protests.
“We need to immediately …beat up the movement demanding Kem Sokha’s release,” he said.
He then added that “some people” were “too confident” that the CNRP would not be dissolved, possibly referring to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been publicly predicting the government will stop short of dissolving the party because it is caving to international pressure.
“In a few more days, there will be a dramatic change,” Banh said. Today is the last day for the CNRP to submit evidence to the Supreme Court in the case. Also speaking to the brigade, Military Region 1 Commander Huot Chheang called on troops to counter any “rebellious” elements.
“We are determined to protect the government created by the people’s will . . . and we are ready to take and follow orders …to fight and destroy all the time and in all forms the traitors, negative people, reactionists – both inside and outside the country – who aim to overthrow the legal government,” he said.
Yoeurng Sotheara, legal and monitoring officer with election monitor Comfrel, questioned the military’s right treat all protesters as threats.
“Authorities have nothing to question about that,” he said. “They don’t have the role to crackdown on protests . . . Instead, the role is to facilitate [peaceful demonstrations].”