Thirty-nine countries yesterday issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern” at the escalation of political tensions in Cambodia, but as military hardliners continued to back the prime minister’s pledged crackdown on the opposition, observers were quick to demand more concrete action by the international community.
Delivered by US Ambassador to the United Nations Keith Harper to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the statement, endorsed by countries including the US, Australia and all 28 European Union members, called for immediate de-escalation.
“We are deeply concerned about the current escalation of political tensions in Cambodia, which threatens legitimate activities by opposition parties and human rights NGOs,” Harper read.
“There is particular concern about the appearance that legal action is being disproportionately pursued against critics of the government.”
The statement, which also urges Cambodia to renew its lapsed memorandum of understanding with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, comes a day after the US House of Representatives passed a motion slamming legal “harassment” of political opponents in the Kingdom.
However, the government which has denied cases against opposition politicians, civil society workers and an election official are politically motivated – yesterday showed no sign of softening its position.
Addressing the UN council in Switzerland, Cambodia’s Ambassador to the UN Ney Samol said the country did not welcome interference in its internal affairs.
At home, meanwhile, yet more Royal Cambodian Armed Forces generals ratcheted up their rhetoric, pledging they were ready to crack down on a “mass demonstration” promised by the CNRP in response to the raft of litigation.
RCAF Special Region commander Lieutenant General Prum Din said his men would “get rid of all activists who attempt to destroy stability”, and would “confront” the CNRP’s rally.
RCAF’s infantry headquarters released a similar statement, saying that it would stop the “illegal” protests “no matter the cost”.
Commander of the elite Brigade 70, Lieutenant General Mao Sophan; artillery unit chief Lieutenant General Nob Ratana; commander of Intervention Division 3 Lieutenant General Srey Doek; and Region 5 commander Lieutenant General Bun Seng all separately released statements along the same lines.
Seng, also an RCAF deputy commander in chief, oversaw live-fire exercises near his unit’s headquarters in Battambang yesterday, according to photos on the unit’s website, while fellow RCAF deputy commander-in-chief General Eth Sarath attacked the CNRP during a speech to more than a hundred soldiers at the Defence Ministry, according to local media outlet Fresh News.
The statements follow a warning by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday that he would “absolutely not” allow any protests, after which truckloads of armed members of his personal bodyguard unit descended on the street outside the CNRP’s headquarters.
However, despite the aggressive rhetoric, a CNRP lawmaker yesterday suggested the fact that Bodyguard Unit troops did not return on Tuesday night, as was threatened by their commander Hing Bun Heang, may signal a slight “retreat” by the CPP’s hardliners.
“Why are they so scared of mass protests? Because they are not stable within their group,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity.
Speaking at CNRP headquarters yesterday, senior lawmaker Son Chhay said a date for protests had not been set, but warned supporters would take to the streets if deputy president Kem Sokha were arrested.
Sokha – sentenced to five months in prison on Friday for refusing to appear as a witness in a prostitution case against him centred on an alleged affair with a hairdresser – has now spent almost four months inside party headquarters to avoid arrest.
Amid the growing tension, human rights organisations said UN agencies and embassies needed to follow the statement with actions.
International Federation for Human Rights representative to the UN Nicolas Agostini urged states to use “leverage” and demand the release of imprisoned human rights workers.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Right Watch’s Asia division, said the political crisis warrants an emergency response, saying envoys in Phnom Penh were not pulling their weight.
“We need to see these embassies to bring these human rights concerns into the offices of the highest level officials,” Robertson said.
However, embassies in Phnom Penh yesterday offered few details of their plans to lobby the government.
“Besides the [UN] statement, we’ve been calling on both sides to engage in dialogue,” said Mathilde Teruya, spokeswoman for the French Embassy. “The Australian Embassy is closely monitoring the political situation in Cambodia,” an embassy spokesperson added.
George Edgar, European Union ambassador to Cambodia, met with Sokha on Tuesday, but said the EU has no imminent plans to release its own statement on Cambodia’s political atmosphere.
“We are meeting with politicians, including members of the opposition,” Edgar said.
Additional reporting by Meas Sokchea and Shaun Turton