A crowd-control unit of the capital’s police force yesterday released footage of a live-fire practice exercise intended to bolster its ability to “protect the legitimate government”, a display that comes less than a year before a hotly anticipated national election and follows months of government threats directed at would-be protesters.
In a demonstration analysts described as worrying, and which an opposition lawmaker called threatening, officers from the Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s Intervention Unit conducted firing drills at a police base in Por Sen Chey, which were captured in photos and a video published by government-aligned outlet Fresh News.
In the clip, half a dozen policemen begin by firing AK-47s in the prone position at targets some 100 metres away, before walking downrange in formation with their sights trained and dropping to one knee to fire again.
According to Fresh News, Prom Channa, deputy chief of the Municipal Police’s general staff and head of discipline and order, said the exercise, led by the capital’s top cop General Choun Sovann, involved 150 men who were drilled to shoot while in the prone position, standing and moving. The training, he said, was to “strengthen capabilities”, and was necessary for “successful operations”.
“If we do not strengthen the capability of how to use weapons, we will not obtain success in order to keep and protect the legitimate government and people,” he was quoted as saying.
However, observers were left aghast at such tactics being taught to a unit primarily tasked with dealing with unarmed crowds. “It’s unbelievable to see images of intervention police from Phnom Penh being trained to ‘control crowds’ using live ammunition,” Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, Naly Pilorge, said in a message.
“Intervention police are supposed to maintain public order and protect citizens and property using force as the very last option, not learn how to shoot citizens who gather or express grievances publicly.”
The target practice comes amid a barrage of hostile rhetoric by Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior government officials directed at the opposition and its supporters.
Hun Sen on Thursday threatened to “smash” any protesters who disputed the result of next year’s national election, comments which echoed a statement by the Minister for Social Affairs who said the government would bludgeon such people with bamboo poles – a policy he attributed to the premier.
Ahead of June’s commune elections, Defence Minister Tea Banh warned he would “smash the teeth” of would-be demonstrators who did not accept the results, and other members of the security forces have repeatedly and publicly argued for the necessity of using force to thwart so-called “colour revolutions”, remarks often read by observers as thinly veiled references to the opposition.
Reached yesterday, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Cheam Channy said though training officers was necessary, he saw the live-fire exercises as a threat to the party and people.
“Using this type of force to crack down on peaceful protesters, it’s a violation of demonstrators’ rights,” he said.
A research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Kevin Nauen, said the training and recent violent rhetoric, including framing the opposition as a threat to the country, appeared to be an effort to politicise the security services and normalise the use of force.
“It is essential that [Hun Sen] normalises the idea of the use of force to defend the regime. Once socialised to accept it as a legitimate way of thinking, then putting it into practice is not difficult,” Nauen said in a message.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, however, dismissed the suggestion that the training constituted a threat.
“We protect the legitimate government and constitution,” he said. “It is the ones who are against the law and want to topple the government – they are the ones who want the country to return to war.”
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton