The Cambodia National Rescue Party yesterday declared its intention to move forward with nationwide demonstrations in response to what it calls a campaign of state-backed legal harassment, prompting a swift reply from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who warned security forces had been advised to crack down on any such attempt.
Coming on the heels of Friday’s conviction of CNRP acting president Kem Sokha, the party’s permanent committee yesterday voted to green-light mass, nonviolent protests and establish a committee to organise them, according to a statement released yesterday evening.
Party spokesman Yim Sovann said that while the opposition party still hoped to negotiate with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, given the continued persecution of its members, there was “no choice” but to take to the streets.
“We cannot wait and just see us arrested one by one,” Sovann said, adding that the 10- to 20-member committee, to be formed today, would set a demonstration date.
Asked how many supporters the party hoped to mobilise, the spokesman said “as many as possible”.
As it stands, two opposition elected representatives are behind bars, three more face criminal cases and the party’s leaders – president Sam Rainsy and Sokha – have been sentenced to jail time.
Rainsy fled into self-imposed exile last year while Sokha has been holed up at the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters since May 26 to avoid arrest himself, and on Friday was sentenced to five months in prison.
The opposition leader was convicted for not appearing as a witness in a prostitution case surrounding his purported mistress, a case that has also seen four human rights workers and an election official imprisoned.
In a speech to supporters on Sunday, Sokha warned that the “unjust” cases – widely considered politically motivated – could spur mass demonstrations.
Speaking yesterday, an opposition lawmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, said the party needed a show of strength. “We have to put the pressure back on the CPP,” they said.
“Our back is against the wall . . . they must think twice before crossing the line. We have arrived at a turning point, a showdown.”
Though Sovann, the spokesman, said the party would seek permission, and protection, from the authorities for their members to “exercise their rights”, the premier quickly slapped down any suggestion of allowing the protests.
In an interview with online outlet Fresh News, often used to disseminate state decisions, Hun Sen reportedly said he had ordered Interior Ministry Sar Kheng and all armed forces to prepare to stop the opposition’s “illegal mass demonstrations”.
“For two days already, the National Rescue Party has threatened the government and the country’s stability,” the premier was quoted as saying.
“It is time to say back that we won’t allow [protests] with whatever values, at whatever time, in whatever form; it absolutely will not be allowed.
“There is no solution which can be found except the court. The court system will sentence those who do wrong, and please don’t be under the impression that the government does not have the right to use authorities to protect the country’s peace.”
Interior Ministry and National Police representatives were unreachable yesterday evening. Defence Ministry spokesman Chum Socheat confirmed the military would take measures to “protect public security” if ordered by the government.
The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, yesterday released a rebuttal of the CNRP’s criticisms of the swift conviction of Sokha, maintaining any delay would have been contrary to his rights.
Last week, ahead of Sokha’s trial, several joint police and military police roadblocks were set up around Phnom Penh, with reports of CNRP supporters being blocked from travelling to the capital.
The British Embassy yesterday updated its travel warning to citizens visiting the Kingdom, noting the “high” political tensions. “Avoid all protests and demonstrations as they could turn violent,” it stated.