Police keep a close watch on a march by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party earlier this year.
Police chief Hok Lundy told a meeting at the municipal hall on February 24 that 2,000
national police and 300 military police would hit the city's streets in advance of
the general election. The ostensible reason: so they can practice to prevent violent
demonstrations like the January 29 anti-Thai riots.
Lundy said a training exercise would take place in early March to prepare as many
as 700 officers for riot action.
"In the next two weeks we will show the mastermind of the [riots] the strength
of our forces," he said during a blustering speech. "After the election,
if any political party refuses to accept the results of the election and affects
national security, and if there is an order from the existing government, we will
take down the demonstrators."
But given the widespread belief that elements of the ruling Cambodian People's Party
(CPP) were behind the riot, many observers will see this as a warning to other parties,
and an excuse to crack down on political dissent ahead of the election.
Senior officials, such as Ministry of Interior (MoI) spokesman Khieu Sopheak, said
the government could no longer afford to be lenient with illegal protests.
"From now on, we have received orders that we have to do anything [to prevent]
what will be harmful to the nation," he said. "It means that if the mosquito
bites me, I don't need to ask permission to kill the mosquito."
Sopheak quickly affirmed the right of protesters to assemble in legal demonstrations,
but said that non-sanctioned gatherings would be stamped out by any means necessary.
"The violence depends on protesters," he said. "The police have the
right to use a non-lethal weapon [but] if the mosquito bites ... we can do anything."
This hostility to protests combined with a formidable arsenal of police weapons and
an apparent willingness to use them has alarmed human rights organizations.
They have said they will scrupulously monitor law enforcement as elections approach
to ensure the safety of demonstrators. But, they said, there is already cause for
"We have not seen this type of excessive violence used for crowd control purposes
in a long time," said Henrik Alffram of the UN human rights office. "We
will be monitoring extra closely in the coming months."
Alffram pointed out recent police actions such as the break-up of a demonstration
in front of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife last December. A dozen people
were injured and another later died of a heart attack, possibly after being struck
with an electric baton.
Human rights observers hope to prevent the kind of violence that marred the "Democracy
Square" demonstrations in September 1998 following the last general election.
At the time, thousands of protesters gathered in Phnom Penh to protest against an
election result they said was rigged, and demanded the CPP relinquish power.
Police countered the seventeen-day demonstration with batons, electric prods, rifle
butts, water cannons and bullets. The result was that several people were killed,
including two monks, and scores more were injured.
Today, an even more formidable array of weapons is available to police, along with
a hardened resolve not to give protesters the upper hand.
MoI officials said police are being equipped with smoke grenades, electro-shock batons,
teargas canisters, Vietnamese-trained attack dogs, high pressure fire hoses and other
weapons to ensure that the "bitter lesson" learned at the Thai Embassy
does not happen again.
This array of weapons, some lethal, has left observers wondering just who is accountable
and who has been properly trained in their use.
One official formerly involved with police operations said that no foreign assistance
was being offered to law enforcement agencies to teach crowd control techniques,
despite the pressing need for competent riot police.
Both the French government and the Australian Federal Police run training or 'cooperation'
projects with police, but representatives from both projects refused to elaborate
on their activities.
Other assistance is provided by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the US Drug
Enforcement Agency. They conduct workshops to train police in non-lethal arrest methods,
although the focus is mainly on combating drug smuggling.
Today the majority of police training seems to come from Vietnam, whose law enforcement
instructors work in the MoI's Department of Training. Around 30 high-ranking officers
travel annually to Vietnam for police training.
And despite these new preparations, there is confusion over which police units will
be responsible for handling these operations. In the past, a competing mélange
of law enforcement agencies have arrived at the scene of protests.
During the recent riots, for example, various security agencies were deployed including
the municipal police, national police, military police, the army and others.
A study about the structure of the National Police by the Asian Human Rights Commission
and the Cambodia Criminal Justice Assistance Project revealed major overlaps of authority
with no clear delineation of crowd control responsibilities.
Police jurisdiction for such activity often spans several divisions within the MoI
as well as the municipal police. No established chain of command exists.
"We don't have any [specialized] police for crowd control," said Sopheak.
Instead, he pointed out, several units are involved - the Flying Tigers, the military
police, the social order police, and Interior Intervention police.
And among the consequences of these competing jurisdictions, stated a recent UN report
on criminal justice, are that monitoring efforts are more complicated, and responsibilities
and accountability are dissipated.
Is that deliberate, or just convenient? George McLeod, an official with the Free
Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), believes the former.
He said that as instances of police violence have become more visible, third-party
groups are contracted to break up demonstrations by members of his union.
"It's becoming more frequent now, especially with the elections coming, using
these rogue groups," said McLeod, who named the Pagoda Boys, a pro-CPP, government-linked
group that often appears at political opposition rallies or strikes. "The police
provide protection for them, they certainly don't stop them."
The Pagoda Boys' most recent appearance was at a planned rally to call for the resignation
of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the release of two media figures jailed after the riots.
The presence of the Pagoda Boys, along with their threats, ensured the protest did
not go ahead.
Such intimidation tactics are not new. In the last election, crowds of pro-CPP demonstrators
repeatedly clashed with opposition groups. At the time, a report by the UN human
rights office called on the government to disarm and disband the pro-CPP demonstrators,
whom the rights office said "appear to be agents provocateurs".
Not much has changed.
Naly Pilorge, acting director of local human rights NGO Licadho, said prospects for
a more peaceful approach to an election were in doubt.
"In terms of the increase in police officers during the election period, I don't
envision much change," she said, expressing concern about counter-demonstration
groups and the actions of police.
But police officials insist they will refrain from using force provided the protest
is legal. Police chief of staff Mao Chandara said he hoped there would be no violence.
He insisted the riots could not be allowed to happen again, and said the prospect
of further clashes depended on "the party opposition".
"The election comes from the conscience of the people," said Chandara.
"We should accept it."
One election observer told the Post that the atmosphere that had evolved on the back
of the riots would intimidate voters. He predicted it would have a chilling effect
on freedom of assembly for voters and political parties.
"This kind of environment of fear makes it very difficult to hold free and fair
elections," he said, speaking anonymously. "Insecurity always happens in
the pre-election period [and] the problems we observed in 1998 are happening again.
The system is not improving [and] impunity is encouraged."