The National Police and Phnom Penh City Hall released their year-end reports yesterday, with both congratulating themselves for helping to carry out a political crackdown widely condemned by international observers.
The National Police report highlights “complicated challenges to security and public order” in 2017, citing “the bad trick of the opposition group”.
In September, opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested for “treason” and two months later his Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only viable challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in this year’s election – was dissolved for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Little evidence has been presented to support such a charge.
But contrary to widespread international criticism of the move, Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday told National Police officials it was in fact the CNRP that had undermined democracy by initially protesting the results of the 2013 elections, when allegations of ballot rigging and voting irregularities in a tight poll were rampant.
“This party wanted to hold the power, but not through the multiparty democratic election,” he said.
Kheng did not explain why the government had waited four years to take action, when the next national elections were just months away, if the CNRP’s major offence had been committed in 2013.
Kheng also turned his attention to the new Cambodia National Rescue Movement, an informal group launched last month by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Sokha’s self-exiled predecessor, who has pledged to eventually call for nonviolent protests.
“The CNRM, we see it has not registered, and if it wants to register, we will not permit it because it is illegal,” Kheng said, adding that the movement “serves destruction”.
Nonetheless, he insisted, “We have not deprived the rights or freedom of anyone.”
The National Police report appeared to repeat such fears of an armed insurrection, instructing officers to be vigilant of any attempts at uprising, despite the fact that most former CNRP leaders have fled the country.
“Do not give the opportunity to the unfriendly forces to use tricks and incitement to create armed forces and destroy the achievements of the country,” the report says.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said the police are currently “collecting more evidence” on the CNRM.
“We are working together with the lawyers from the Ministry of Justice . . . We’re collecting evidence in order to consider how we should take legal action,” he said.
Meanwhile, City Hall also cited achievements in preventing a so-called “colour revolution”.
“The remarkable things – political chaos and terrorism – have been prevented from happening,” the report reads.
Phil Robertson, with Human Rights Watch’s Asia bureau, said it was “laughable” that the police and municipal authorities would “congratulate themselves for stopping a movement that never existed”.
“What’s real in all of this is Cambodia’s human rights record is now in the toilet,” he said via email.
Despite the widely shared belief that this year’s poll will be a sham with the CPP’s only viable competitor no longer in play, the National Police said it was still a priority for 2018 to “ensure the free and fair Senate and National Assembly elections”.
Yoeurng Sotheara, legal analyst at election monitor Comfrel, said the crackdown has already soured the “pre-election climate”, which he believes is a critical indicator of free and fair elections, as is the independence of organisations like the police and the National Election Committee.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said free and fair elections are “impossible in an environment where any meaningful challenger is thrown in jail”.
“It now appears that the outcome of upcoming election in July is a foregone conclusion,” she said via email.
Former CNRP lawmaker Long Botta said far from preserving political stability, the recent crackdown amounted to a “constitutional coup”.
“I say that their report is a shame for the Khmer people,” Botta added.
Additional reporting by Erin Handley