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Bracing for protests, authorities to prevent citizens from entering capital for Sokha trial

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks to officials on measures for suppressing demonstrations ahead of CNRP President Kem Sokha’s trial at a Friday meeting in Phnom Penh.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks to officials on measures for suppressing demonstrations ahead of CNRP President Kem Sokha’s trial at a Friday meeting in Phnom Penh. Fresh News

Bracing for protests, authorities to prevent citizens from entering capital for Sokha trial

Anticipating popular unrest surrounding the “treason” trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Friday instructed provincial governors, police chiefs and officers to block people from travelling to the capital and to prevent any attempts at demonstrations.

The remarks come against the backdrop of an intensifying crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which, in addition to the arrest of its leader, is facing dissolution under controversial amendments to the Kingdom’s Law on Political Parties after the Ministry of Interior filed an official complaint earlier this month.

Speaking at a workshop on Friday, Kheng accused the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party of having staged a “failed colour revolution”, adding that any attempts to conduct protests or demonstrations needed to be shut down immediately – saying authorities had made a mistake in not preventing provincial Cambodians from entering the capital during 2013’s postelection protests.

He said it was likely CNRP supporters would again come to the city for Sokha’s trial – a situation that needed to be prevented at the provinces.

“They will come to Phnom Penh and we should not only prevent them from coming, but we also must go down there to investigate these issues.”

The opposition staged numerous nonviolent protests in the wake of the disputed 2013 elections, most famously holding a weeks-long sit-in at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. That sit-in was ultimate dispersed when Military Police surrounded the park, and plainclothes thugs stormed in, brutally beating unarmed opposition supporters and tearing down structures that had been erected there. The dispersal followed violent wage protests on Veng Sreng Boulevard – fatally suppressed by police – that authorities have long blamed on the opposition.

Subsequent nonviolent protests in 2014 were repeatedly met with violent responses by Daun Penh district security guards.

But Kheng on Friday seemed to blame the opposition for inciting violent reactions from the authorities, saying that officials needed to be aware of this tactic.

“They use the word ‘positive change’, but then they incite state authorities to use violence. This is in order for them [CNRP] to gather more forces to topple the state – this is the issue,” Kheng said.

The Interior Ministry recently held a training workshop for Information Ministry officials schooling them on the government’s narrative of Sokha’s arrest, and asking them to ensure journalists did not err in reporting the government’s line.

On Friday, Kheng parroted the government’s rationale for Sokha’s arrest, accusing the opposition of fomenting a purported colour revolution – a term used for nonviolent protest movements in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Deputy National Police Commissioner Chhay Sinarith doubled down on this line, insisting there was evidence to prove the opposition was mounting a revolution with the aid of foreign organisations, but that a lack of popular support had stopped them from succeeding.

He also called for stricter implementation of the law to close “loopholes allowing attempts to stage the toppling of the legitimate government”. Kheng’s comments follow similar assertions from other senior government and armed forces officials. Armed forces Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun asked his commanders to crack down on any “extremist elements” last week.

Kampong Speu Governor Vei Samnang, who also attended Friday’s meeting, said he was confident that no one from his province would be able to launch any demonstrations. Without giving details, he claimed there were commune- and district-level meetings of opposition supporters to “stand up and continue the struggle”, suggesting they were planning activities that would cause incitement.

“When they unleash their activities, we will stop them on behalf of the authorities for public order [and] security.”CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who left the country after being warned of her imminent arrest, said the opposition did not plan to hold any protests, adding that it would be detrimental to the government to crack down on supporters wishing to observe Sokha’s trial.

“They will like to express themselves and they will want to be at court,” she said yesterday. “To crush the people will not benefit the CPP at all.”

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