As the opposition yet again officially endorsed its three new deputy presidents yesterday after weeks of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, CNRP leader Kem Sokha took the opportunity to respond to recent threats of a bloody crackdown on any postelection protests, saying that the public would “be the judge” of any violent government action.
The response prompted one ruling party spokesman to go even further, suggesting that protesters could lose lives in the streets.
Sokha’s speech came a day after Defence Minister Tea Banh warned the CNRP and its supporters that there would be little tolerance this time around for post-election protests or calls for Hun Sen to step down – a reference to chants shouted by protesters following the 2013 national elections.
“When they lose the election, but refuse to accept and come demanding this and that, we will not allow it,” he said to party supporters in Siem Reap on Tuesday. “They will be beaten until their teeth come out.”
Speaking just before yesterday’s party leadership vote, at a meeting of female CNRP candidates in the fast-approaching commune elections, Sokha used the forum to jump on Banh’s comments.
“If they want to beat us until our teeth fall out, let the citizens be the judge of that,” he said. “If citizens like gentle [individuals], then vote for the CNRP.”
Banh’s comments have coincided with similar threatening rhetoric from ruling party officials, which some analysts have linked to the party’s anxiety over June’s elections. However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday escalated Banh’s threat, saying far worse awaited the CNRP if they took to the streets.
“Their teeth really will come out, and stronger [action] than their teeth coming out will be taken,” he said.
When pressed what this action could be, Eysan only said protesters could “die”, and justified this by adding that only the CPP could ensure peace in reaction to what he called the CNRP’s anarchic behaviour.
Banh’s comments elicited international condemnation yesterday, with the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Human Rights Watch slamming the four-star military commander for abandoning his expected neutral standpoint and directly threatening the opposition.
“Tea Banh’s statement is clear evidence that the RCAF have totally abandoned any pretence of impartiality and non-partisanship in this election, and they are now taking a role that is more like the private militia of Hun Sen and the CPP than a national institution defending the country,” said Human Right Watch’s Phil Robertson.
APHR head Charles Santiago said Banh’s “extremely worrying” statement needed to be investigated by the National Election Committee to ensure a smooth electoral process.
“It is high time for the authorities, including the National Election Committee, to take positive action to ensure that the elections are free and fair, and that Cambodian citizens are able to express their political wishes without fears for their safety,” he said via email.
Back at CNRP headquarters, the party’s central committee re-elected lawmakers Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as deputy party presidents.
The vote follows a two-month-long episode of Interior Ministry interference in the process, which has left the opposition party with some or all of its top leadership unrecognised for long stretches of time.
Following party president Sam Rainsy’s surprise resignation in February, the party held an extraordinary congress in early March to elevate Kem Sokha to head of the party alongside the three deputies.
Weeks later, the Interior Ministry flagged the nominations, saying the party had not adhered to its own bylaws, while ignoring the fact that the bylaws had already been amended to allow for the vote.
After accepting the amended bylaws, Sokha moved up to party presidency on April 2, but in another reversal the government claimed the deputies’ official selection date was now April 2 and fell outside of the party bylaws’ stipulated 30-day window for replacing leadership.
This necessitated another removal of the time period on April 25, and only after approval by the ministry did the party go ahead to re-elect the deputies.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that the party would send the list of deputies to the ministry and hoped the incident was behind them.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak welcomed the re-election but said it would only be assessed once submitted to the ministry.