A high-ranking security official yesterday – without offering evidence – labelled the Sam Rainsy-created Cambodia National Rescue Movement a “terrorist” organisation, with the nation’s highest-ranking defence official warning that the military would “take action first” to prevent violence.
“They want to launch a terrorist attack, and it is not the political terrorism, it is terrorism to cause chaos,” said Military Police chief Sao Sokha, speaking at the force’s annual review.
The CNRM was announced earlier this month by Rainsy, ostensibly for the purpose of calling for demonstrations in Cambodia after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was summarily and controversially dissolved at the government’s behest. The “movement” has the support of a smattering of former CNRP officials, though others have spoken against it.
The goal of the group, which Rainsy has said is nonviolent, is to put pressure on the government to reverse measures taken during the political crackdown – which has been almost universally condemned – and to secure the release of former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is jailed on widely decried “treason” charges.
Sokha, however, claimed the “core” objective of the movement is to “destroy the unity of the army . . . and break the spine of the government”.
He also warned civilians against wearing military uniforms, and warned that any demonstrators seen wearing such a uniform “will be dead”.
At the same meeting, Defence Minister Tea Banh called the movement a “poisonous snake”. Despite Rainsy’s repeated declarations that the movement is strictly nonviolent, Banh claimed the opposite.
“Now the CNRP ‘movement’ said it will arrange to have violence in Cambodia, so be ready,” Banh said, adding the military would “take action first” to prevent violence.
A series of articles posted on Monday to government mouthpiece Fresh News also heaped criticism on the movement.
In separate articles, Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap and the minor Cambodia Nationality Party called the movement illegal, while a spokesman for the royalist party Funcinpec reportedly said it is just a front to
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak also told the outlet that the movement was under observation, and that anybody involved will face legal action.
In an interview yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the use of the word “terrorism” was “proper” because Rainsy had called for “soldiers to turn their guns on its government”, in reference to a 2011 video of the former opposition leader.
Siphan added that the opposition’s demands for economic sanctions from foreign countries in response to the crackdown constituted a form of terrorism.
“They want to destabilise the economy,” he claimed.
He went on to say protests would likely not be tolerated, even if they are peaceful, despite the right to protest being enshrined in the Constitution.
“We learned from the old movements . . . ‘Peaceful demonstration’ is only words,” Siphan said, adding that the government didn’t want “any trouble” before this year’s elections.
The only CNRP-led protest to turn violent since the party’s inception in 2012 occurred when demonstrators fought back against Daun Penh district security guards trying to disband a previously peaceful protest in 2014.
The outburst came after months of the notorious guards brutally beating nonviolent demonstrators protesting the results of the 2013 elections.
Several opposition officials present at the protests are serving length prison terms on “insurrection” charges over the incident, despite videos appearing to show them trying to stop the violence.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia bureau, said the government’s conflation of political opposition with terrorism is “shocking”, but in line with other “falsehoods” it has spread.
According to Rainsy, the creation of the movement had exposed the ruling party’s “intrinsic weaknesses, especially their lack of popular support and their need to use violence to eliminate the democratic opposition”.
“They run a terrorist state and they cynically accuse peaceful opponents of being terrorists,” he said.
Dr Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert at Thailand’s Naresuan University, agreed that the government was showing fear.
“It seems that the government, CPP and parties supporting the CPP in parliament are trying to drive the nail through the heart of Rainsy’s ‘movement’,” he wrote in an email yesterday.