Military police armed with AK-47s, batons and shields and backed by a fire engine with a water cannon come across a ragtag group of civilians huddled together and holding up banners. They point the rifles, fire the water cannon, and disperse the minor threat with almost no effort.
The scene could be taken for an amalgam of the suppression of different protests following the disputed July 2013 national election, which began with the use of water cannons and ended with military police shooting dead five garment workers and injuring some 40 more.
But it is not. The tale, told in 12 photographs uploaded to the national military police Facebook page on Sunday afternoon, instead shows 518 trainee military police practising how to deal with unruly protests they might confront in the future.
Military police spokesman Eng Hy said yesterday that Sao Sokha – the force’s commander and a close ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen – had ordered the training in order to teach the military police how to deal with groups that threaten public order.
“General Sao Sokha considers the training and the education of the force to be a priority, and therefore our forces are always getting training and learning daily,” Hy said. “Sometimes, the provinces send their forces to the national level to learn and to get training to better protect security and public order and to reduce the risk for our authorities and for the suspects.”
In the images on Facebook, the emphasis on reducing risks for “suspects” is not immediately apparent. In one photograph, a commander shouts orders over a loudspeaker, as some of the forces in another photograph crouch down and aim their rifles menacingly at a group portraying protesters.
Another photo shows other officers forming a wall with their shields, appearing to be corralling the rowdy protesters away from some target. Two of the protesters are “arrested”, and the water cannon is fired to disperse the remainder.
“We need to train to rescue hostages, or when there are actions violating the law, or violence or destruction, or cases where swarms of people try to damage public order. We crack down,” Hy said.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator at rights group Licadho, said he would welcome more regular training for military police as two vital elections approach over the next 18 months – but only if it meant they were learning how to deal with protesters without lethal force
“We are concerned about violence. Even though the political situation has become less tense, we keep seeing the police and military continuing to train their armed forces to crack down on demonstrations,” Sam Ath said.
“We have seen, in the past crackdowns, the killing and injuring of many people. “We are concerned about the upcoming elections, and after the elections.”CNRP lawmaker Cheam Channy, part of the opposition party’s steering committee that deals with policy on the armed forces, said that he, too, could only hope the forces were learning how not to harm protesters.
“If the government uses this force to put pressure on people who protest peacefully by using the pretext of protecting national security . . . we find it difficult to accept,” Channy said, adding that people were sick of seeing disproportional force.
“We are not afraid, because, whatever they do, they cannot get away with it in the eyes of the nation and the world,” he explained. The crackdown in January 2014, both on opposition protests calling for a fresh election as well as a nationwide strike of garment workers protesting low salaries, established a violent precedent.
Yet with important commune council elections scheduled in less than six months and the next national election 18 months away, military police spokesman Hy said his forces were not training to kill or maim peaceful protesters.
“We never crack down on nonviolent strikes or demonstrations,” Hy said, before declining to comment on January 2014, which saw military police use live ammunition on garment workers armed with stones and Molotov cocktails.
“It is their right. At the time, I was not spokesman so I cannot answer,” he said.
“The military police are a part of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, therefore they have weapons,” Hy continued. “We have the right to use weapons on any perpetrators or suspects who have weapons.”