Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has denied ordering provincial and municipal governors to instruct the police to prevent the public from celebrating the 15-day Pchum Ben festival, saying some anti-government individuals and media outlets had distorted his words.
On September 10, Sar Kheng issued a message to the governors of Phnom Penh and the provinces, saying: “Your Excellencies, all capital and provincial governors, please be informed that outlawed activists have instructed their companions to go to many pagodas on the occasion of the Pchum Ben festivities as a chance to meet and orchestrate plots.
“So now we are preparing officials to go to pagodas during the festivities and ensure that we bring the situation under control.”
In a post on his Facebook page on Tuesday, Sar Kheng, who is also deputy prime minister, said: “On September 10, I sent a message to the provincial governors instructing them to manage security and public order when citizens across the country celebrate Pchum Ben.
“Some anti-government people and media outlets have slanderously misrepresented my words by claiming that I intended to prevent citizens from celebrating this traditional Buddhist festival. This is malicious, and it is unacceptable to me.
“As the person in charge of public order for the nation, I have the right and legal obligation to give orders to maintain order at all events.
“At the same time, I have the right to direct subordinate officers to take strict legal measures against any attempt to create disorder, destroy peace or political stability or plot to overthrow the government.
“Last but not least, on the occasion of the Buddhist Pchum Ben festival, I would like to call on all our compatriots to join in keeping the peace and to build merit in their lives.”
Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Sar Kheng’s original message contained no indication that he intended to prevent people from celebrating the festival, and he had been misrepresented by certain media outlets and ill-intentioned people.
“I heard the voice of Samdech Krala Hoam Sar Kheng on Radio France Internationale. The message was meant to instruct the governors of the capital and the provinces to attentively protect public safety and watch out for any illegal gatherings planned to welcome Sam Rainsy back into the country.
“In the message, there was no indication that Samdech Krala Hoam [Sar Kheng] had the intention to prevent citizens from attending the Pchum Ben festivities.
“In our country, there are a lot of people, including some journalists and social media users, who take our leaders’ messages, twist their words and interpret them differently from the essence of their original ideas,” he said.
Soeng Sen Karuna, the senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said it was the right of the media and human rights organisations to express their views and opinions on senior officials’ comments or actions.
“Above all, there is no violation of the law. For those of us who work in civil society, we look at things based on human rights and democracy.
“People evaluate the leadership’s messages as they are permitted to according to the right to freedom and national and international laws. It’s not about misinterpretation . . . this is what some people see,” he said.
He said Sar Kheng’s rebuttal was intended to dispel the accusations and address criticism that his message had violated the people’s rights and freedoms.
Sar Kheng’s recent directive came after Sam Rainsy, the “acting president” of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, urged the public to use “people power” to overthrow the government when he returns as announced on November 9.
In an email sent to the media on September 7, Rainsy claimed that his return to the Kingdom was the continuation of his 25-year struggle for democracy against an “authoritarian regime led by former Khmer Rouge members”.