Raised riot shields in their left hands, batons ready in their right, the line of several dozen soldiers advanced toward the crowd of “protesters” who, armed with sticks and placards, lunged forward now and then to strike out at the shields.
Then, officers in the rear lobbed smoke grenades in an arc overhead, the soldiers suddenly broke into a charge and the mock mob, numbering in the dozens, scattered across the National Police’s training facility in Kampong Speu province.
The scenes, relayed in footage released online by Cambodia National Police News on the weekend, show a slice of the recent three-month protest-control training delivered by the National Police and Vietnamese experts to police officers as well as soldiers from five units of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
The exercises come amid threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen and top RCAF commanders to crack down on mass demonstrations pledged by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in response to a flurry of legal cases against their members and top leadership.
In a speech on Thursday marking the conclusion of the course, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun said the exercise showed that the 270 participants from nine provinces were ready to confront demonstrations.
Savoeun said the curriculum covered ethics, strategy, weapons usage, protest prevention theory, as well as “taking a stand to fight”, “arresting targets” and “fighting with a shield”.
He called dispersing crowds and arresting the demonstration’s leaders “key issues”, and said military personnel had faced “a little difficulty” with the course, given they were trained for the battlefield.
“For this course, the confrontation with demonstrations, it is another issue,” said the police chief, who is married to Hun Sen’s niece.
Since threatening demonstrations after CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha was handed a five-month prison term on September 9, the party has offered few details on its plans.
Party officials have said the arrest of Sokha – who is holed up in the opposition headquarters – would trigger protests. However, no such attempt has been made since May, when he first went into hiding.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen – who says he will “absolutely not” allow protests – last week declared a Pchum Benh “ceasefire” and signalled that the ruling CPP was open to talking at the National Assembly.
Senior CNRP spokespeople were unavailable to comment yesterday, although one lawmaker, who requested anonymity, said protest preparations were ongoing.
Given the current climate, said Kevin Nauen, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, the added indication of military involvement in domestic affairs was concerning.
“This training is not a sign that the government is concerned with minimizing human rights abuses, but rather that the military is currently unprepared for crowd control and dispersion efforts,” he said in a message.
In his speech, however, Savoeun rejected that Cambodia was in a political crisis, and instead accused individuals, NGOs and “political parties” of “poisoning the atmosphere”.
He said the police had to be ready to “sacrifice everything” to protect the government.
He added people should “look at the TV” and compare Cambodia to “Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria”, where they were “dropping bombs and shooting missiles” before saying the Kingdom was in crisis.
Additional reporting Shaun Turton