Cambodia’s opposition leaders said Monday they cancelled a tour of former Khmer Rouge strongholds in the country’s northwest out of safety concerns after police and ruling party supporters came out in force to line roads leading to the area in a show of intimidation.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had planned on a two-day northwest tour starting with Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province, where the last of the notorious Khmer Rouge military hid out until the 1990s and where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has a loyal following.
But they were forced to put it off after finding the roads to Anlong Veng blocked by groups of CPP supporters armed with sticks and batons hiding in the bushes nearby, according to the CNRP.
One convoy carrying a group of five CNRP representatives was forced to turn back after it was stopped by a group of CPP supporters who threatened them and went through their belongings, they said.
The bands of supporters had been organized by CPP-aligned authorities, and police and military police had also been deployed along the roads, CNRP leaders said at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Monday.
CNRP deputy chief Kem Sokha accused the CPP of making a systematic show of force intended to threaten the opposition leaders, saying the trip had been cancelled out of fear of violence.
"This is intimidation and is regarded as … a threat,” he told reporters.
“The CPP can't say those officials are regular villagers. They are men and they can be brutal," he said.
Pol Ham, one of the representatives who was stopped on Sunday, said the military was behind the group of CPP supporters who prevented his group from continuing on.
"Those blocking the road were not regular villagers. They had walkie-talkies and weapons," he said.
At least five iPads and smartphones had been taken from the CNRP representatives’ group in the incident, he said.
Choy Sovann, the CNRP’s Oddor Meanchey provincial director, said party leaders had decided to scrap the tour out of security concerns.
"We feared there would be a confrontation," he told RFA on Sunday, saying the CPP supporters had been armed and hiding by the road.
The CNRP has also reported that party signs were taken down in Anlong Veng over the weekend.
Ministry of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak refused to comment on Sunday about reports of people stopping the CNRP representatives from traveling to Anlong Veng.
“I don't have any formal information yet so I can't comment," he told RFA.
Provincial and military officials in Oddor Meanchey could not be reached for comment.
Oddor Meanchey is the only province Sam Rainsy has yet to visit since his return from exile abroad ahead of general elections last year.
The CNRP and CPP have been locked in a bitter standoff since the July 2013 polls, which the main opposition party claims were rigged, boycotting parliament in protest.
Aside from Anlong Veng, the CNRP leaders were set to visit Malai district in nearby Battambang province and Pailin province.
All three remote areas once had strong links to the Khmer Rouge, whose last troops were reintegrated into the national army in February 1999 after Anlong Veng fell to the government in December the year before.
After the election, the CNRP led numerous mass protests in the capital, drawing thousands of supporters, until a violent crackdown in January.
It has held more protests since then, but cancelled several political rallies out of fear of violence and confrontations with CPP supporters.
Hun Sen came to power following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia which brought about the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime blamed for the deaths of up to 2 million people during its brutal rule between 1975-1979.
Opposition parties have regularly accused the long-ruling prime minister of being a puppet installed by the Vietnamese government.