A video posted to Facebook earlier this week shows the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit training to disperse demonstrations with the use of armed personnel and tanks, making it the latest branch of the security services to prepare itself for riot control in a tense political atmosphere.
The training comes amid heated rhetoric from the government and armed forces vowing to crack down on any would-be demonstrators or “extremist elements” protesting the arrest or trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha last month on widely condemned “treason” charges.
The video of the training, uploaded by a Bodyguard Unit member, shows a group of mock protesters holding sticks and bottles charging the bodyguards and chanting “change, change, change” – the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s galvanising refrain in the lead-up and aftermath of the disputed 2013 national election.
They suddenly start to back up as bodyguards begin pointing their AK-47s and advancing, with a tank carrying other personnel in tow. The bodyguards then charge at the protesters and break up the mob, even mocking some of them. The training took place at the unit’s headquarters in Kandal’s Takhmao town.
Unit spokesman Ith Thaorath expressed surprise that the video was leaked, but added that the Bodyguard Unit’s training was not meant to alarm people, and was just part of its regular training.
“This is the training to guarantee and protect public order in society and strengthen ourselves. And also to keep the peace that we have today,” he said.
Last month, bodyguard chief Hing Bun Heang said that the unit would be prepared to crack down on any dissent emanating from the arrest of Sokha.
“When there is an issue like a protest or strike to demand something that opposes democracy or breaks the law . . . this force will cooperate with Military Police and National Police to maintain security,” he said at the time.
The Bodyguard Unit has been implicated in controversies in the past. In 2015, three members of the unit were convicted in a brazen daylight attack on two opposition CNRP lawmakers, who were dragged from their cars and brutally beaten just outside the National Assembly following an anti-opposition rally.
The men were not removed from the unit, but were instead promoted upon their release from prison.