Updated 6:46am, Wednesday April 11, 2018. Further updates to follow
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a speech on Tuesday, claimed to have foiled a Khmer New Year terrorist plot to bomb Wat Phnom and Siem Reap, and ordered the arrests of members of the activist group Khmer National Liberation Front.
“Last night, I sent secret information to the municipal governor” about an alleged April 12 plot to bomb Wat Phnom, the city’s best known Buddhist temple, the premier said. “You must be careful. I already control the situation.”
Denmark-based KNLF founder Sam Serey, who declares himself a political refugee and has repeatedly professed a commitment to nonviolence, was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison for “plotting” to commit an attack in 2016.
The charge was related to a protest at the Vietnamese Embassy in which 10 other members of the KNLF, which the government has branded “terrorists”, were arrested armed with nothing more than banners and pamphlets.
In a message on Tuesday, Serey denied the accusations and claimed to be speaking from Cambodia.
“What Hun Sen said on morning of 10 April 2018 is not true. I have no intension [sic] or plan to use violence as he accused me. I have worked peacefully and non-violence,” Serey wrote, adding that Hun Sen “fabricated” evidence to arrest him while he is in Cambodia visiting family.
The prime minister described Serey as the “chief traitor” and ordered the arrest of any KNLF members involved in the plot.
“Arrest them,” he said. “They want to make explosions.”
The KNLF, first branded a terrorist group in 2013, has long called for Hun Sen to be tried in international court for crimes against humanity. They have also accused his regime of being a puppet of the Vietnamese.
Read more: A terrorist group by any other name
More than 20 members of the group have been arrested over the years, and despite the accusations of terrorism, none have ever been found in possession of weapons.
Hun Sen added that security would be heightened during the Khmer New Year holiday period to “protect the people”.
Keo Sarin, a spokesman for the Department of Immigration, said an arrest warrant has been posted for Serey at every official border checkpoint in the country for his previous court sentence.
However, Serey claimed he got into Cambodia “secretly” across the Thai border and declined to disclose his precise location.
Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said authorities have already began to act urgently on Hun Sen’s order.
“[National Police Chief] General Neth Savoeun ordered the expert forces to find them . . . They are investigating,” he said.
When pressed, Chantharith refused to describe the alleged plot or how it came to light, saying he could not give more details during the investigative phase.
“They have bad intentions to cause problems here,” he added.
Y Sokhy, head of the Interior Ministry’s Counterterrorism Department, declined to comment on the matter.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said even the “highest authorities” should adhere to the principle that all suspects are “presumed innocent unless found guilty after an independent, impartial, and fair trial”.
She also stressed the importance of separation between the executive branch and the judiciary in any democracy.
“Any interference from one entity to another should be avoided as much as possible; and politics should never play a role in the way the judicial system is administered,” she said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, was less delicate, claiming the premier often uses events like this to justify a “political crackdown”.
“What is invariably lacking is any credible evidence, but with Cambodia’s kangaroo courts solidly under government control, the PM doesn’t need any to secure convictions,” Robertson said via email.
Robertson said more “tired, old political trick[s]” should be expected in the lead up to July’s elections.
Government officials have repeatedly invoked the spectre of war and unrest when discussing the prospect of political change.
Since last year’s forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only viable challenger to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party – the premier has repeatedly justified the action as necessary to preserve “peace and stability”.
However, bystanders at Wat Phnom on Tuesday were largely sceptical that any bomb plot had been afoot. Of 11 locals interviewed – none of whom had ever heard of the KNLF or Serey – eight rejected the possibility, with the remaining three allowing that anything was possible.
Rath Saray, a 35-year-old Phnom Penh resident and frequent Wat Phnom visitor, dismissed Hun Sen’s warning.
“I think what he said is to make people feel scared . . . The situation is normal, but he intimidates the people,” he said.
Heang Thai, a long-time tuk-tuk driver, also dismissed the allegation as “political” in nature.
“What is the benefit of bombing here? He said this because he wants to show the people that he can maintain the peace,” Thai said.