The opposition party yesterday cancelled a planned public meeting in Kandal province to avoid possible violence, its leaders said, after supporters arrived to find hundreds of intimidating plainclothes men allegedly sent there by the ruling party, along with riot and military police.
Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, were scheduled to arrive at the event in Sa’ang district’s Troeuy Sla district at 2pm but cancelled not long beforehand.
Inside the grounds of Koh Touch pagoda, hundreds of civilians, many wearing matching red wristbands, riot police armed with tear-gas canisters, military police armed with shields and batons, and an assortment of other police forces had gathered.
Eng Chhay Eang, the CNRP’s head in Kandal, told reporters at a press conference that the ruling party had sent hundreds of security forces and what he called the “third hand” to threaten and intimidate opposition supporters.
“The ceremony was postponed due to almost 1,000 third hands of the government, who came to disturb [us]. They asked [if they could] attend the ceremony, but we did not allow them to join [because] they will cause a dispute [with us],” he said. “This is a trick that was played to arrest us and jail us. We do not play this game, [so] we decided to postpone.”
Chhay Eang added that police forces took no action to disperse the gathered civilians from the pagoda area despite requests from the opposition.
A police officer who evicted journalists and monitors from the venue at about 3pm said he was acting on the orders of his “general” but could not explain why the forces had been assembled in the pagoda.
“My answer is I don’t know,” the man said. A number of other military police and police officials declined to speak to the Post at the scene, while the gathered civilians – one of whom shouted that the CNRP shouldn’t be trusted – also were reluctant to explain what they were doing there.
Kirth Chantharith, national police spokesman, declined to comment in detail on allegations of political intimidation.
“My competence only has measures to protect [the CNRP’s] security. Police have always defended [Sam Rainsy’s] group. In the past, even though he has held a small demonstration, a big demonstration, a marching demonstration, a non-marching demonstration, the police have always defended him,” he said.
Neither Minister of Interior Sar Kheng nor ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could be reached for comment yesterday.
Speaking to reporters at CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district, Rainsy suggested that Prime Minister Hun Sen was “afraid” of embarrassment in Kandal, where he was elected.
“But I wonder whether [they were trying] to pull CNRP leaders … into their trap, because [we talked] to [Interior Minister Sar Kheng],” he said.
According to Rainsy, he called Sar Kheng yesterday morning, telling him that the situation was tense and security forces had gathered en masse. The minister reportedly called him back half an hour later and said the meeting could go ahead with “no problem”.
“On March 30, 1997, I also received a letter of permission from Mr Sar Kheng telling me, when I asked permission to hold a demonstration in front of the old parliament, ‘No problem!’ [But] my god, [we were] attacked with four grenades,” Rainsy told reporters, referencing an attack on an opposition rally that killed 16 people.
The opposition leader added that the government’s ban on public assembly “will be lifted only if the CNRP takes [our] seats in the National Assembly”, a decision he said was illogical.
“We count on pressure. Internal pressure and external pressure on the government to force it to lift this ban, and only once this ban is lifted will we demonstrate again.”