Echoing remarks by Prime Minister Hun Sen last week, Minister of Defence Tea Banh called on the military yesterday to be ready to suppress any attempt at a “colour revolution”, telling soldiers that agitators were fomenting such a revolution at that very moment.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the completion of training at a Kampong Speu military base, Banh warned cadets that the political situation in the country was rapidly changing, and that without caution, a revolution could break out at any time.
Explaining to the troops the premise of colour revolutions – named after a series of popular movements in the former Soviet sphere and elsewhere, typically marked by passive resistance – Banh said that such movements build power at a grassroots level, and are capable of toppling a government through non-violence.
Banh went on to draw parallels to recent civil society protests against the recently passed controversial NGO law, as well as opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party trips to sections of Cambodia’s disputed border with Vietnam, and characterised organisers as malcontents.
“If they cannot get anything that benefits them, they claim this is not a democracy. If we cannot control democracy, it will become anarchy,” he said.
“There will be absolutely no colour revolution in our country. Their attempt to create a colour revolution is not over.… They keep putting society in turmoil.
“We [the armed forces] will absolutely protect the legal government,” Banh continued. “So I tell you to be aware in advance that a colour revolution cannot happen.”
Banh’s comments bore a clear resemblance to those delivered by the prime minister last Thursday to a crowd of some 5,000 high-ranking military and police officials.
In that speech, Hun Sen also referred to CNRP border visits, and called on forces to be vigilant against colour revolutions, adding that “armed forces must be loyal to the government”.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, who has led some of the border visits referred to in Hun Sen and Banh’s speeches, said that such gatherings were typical of democratic states, and maintained that the military was obliged to protect the security of the people rather than a single political party.
“People have always conducted peaceful protests without violence,” he said.
“There is no colour revolution. I think they’re afraid of their shadow.”
Am Sam Ath, a senior technical officer with rights group Licadho, said that if armed forces barred citizens from public gatherings, it would violate constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of assembly.
The NGO law protests referenced by Banh, he continued, were simply a peaceful expression of dissatisfaction with the law, which NGOs contend will restrict their operations.
“It is completely not a revolution at all; we’re just expressing our concern,” he said.
“We do not have any intention to topple the government. Even in some communist countries, people stage protests about things that affect them.”
Political analyst Ou Virak yesterday said the recent speeches were emblematic of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s “paranoia”, but that the military had been used to crack down on dissent before.
“I’m taking this thing seriously,” he said.
Ironically, however, turning to repressive measures such as violent crackdowns only serves to bolster the conditions for populist uprisings, Virak added.
“If their biggest fear is a colour revolution, which is a people’s revolution, then the best thing for them would be to understand the people and take care of their needs.”
However, government spokesman Phay Siphan maintained yesterday that it was strictly forbidden for the military to intervene against a non-violent protest, while noting that they could only be used to provide order in a manner akin to the United States’ National Guard.
“The military has a duty to put everything in order.
The National Guard in the United States, when the civil authorities can’t maintain order, they request they [come in],” he said, adding that for “non-violent protests, the military can’t touch it”.
“The armed forces have to be neutral towards any party; that includes the CPP, too.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE