In an effort to end the “Black Monday” protests that are bedeviling Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the nation’s defense minister threatened demonstrators with arrest on Thursday.
Speaking to approximately 1,000 military officials during the dedication of a National Defense University building funded by the Vietnamese government, Defense Minister Tea Banh said Black Monday protesters need government permission to demonstrate, or else they will go to jail.
“What is Black Monday?” he said, according to a Cambodia Daily report. “If you want to protest, it is OK, but you have to ask for permission. Ask for permission, and it will either be allowed or not allowed. It is at the discretion of the people in charge of the venue. If you do it illegally, you will be arrested.”
'Overthrow the government'
Tea Binh told the military that the rival Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is attempting to overthrow the government or depose the CPP.
“Speaking honestly, they want to overthrow the government that is led by the CPP, or overthrow the CPP,” he said, according to the report. “We have one thing to say to anyone who creates obstacles to our work: We will take measures.”
The protests take their names from the black shirts demonstrators wear as they rally for the release of four officers from human rights group ADHOC and a senior election official who are currently in prison.
The four ADHOC officers and the election official, along with a U.N. employee, were charged with bribery over their alleged role in a sex scandal involving Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
Human rights groups accuse the ruling CPP of attempting to silence its critics with arrests and intimidation.
Tea Binh’s remarks look like an attempt to scare people away from the protests, as the government usually comes up with a way to deny permits to demonstrators who are unsupportive of the government or the CPP.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovan told RFA’s Khmer service that the protests are peaceful and Cambodians’ right to assemble is guaranteed under the country’s constitution. He also denied Tea Banh’s allegation that the CNRP is attempting to topple the government.
Black Monday protests, which have occurred on the past two consecutive Mondays, were created by civil society groups in Cambodia after the arrests of the ADHOC officers and the election official on May 2.
Hun Sen’s government has arrested about a dozen of the Black Monday protestors, but authorities have released them. Now Tea Binh appears to be telling Cambodians that the government won’t be so easy on those demonstrators in the future.
The authorities’ actions have sparked international concern as a group of U.N. experts told the Cambodian government it must immediately end its attacks on civil society members, rights activists, and political opposition figures and take effective steps to preserve political freedoms in the Southeast Asian country.
Political tensions between the ruling CPP and the CNRP have grown worse in recent months. In addition to the arrests that triggered Black Monday, the government has arrested more than a dozen opposition lawmakers including Senator Hong Sok Hour, CNRP media director Meach Sovannara, and Um Sam An, an opposition member of parliament.
Cambodia’s contentious and at times violent political situation has pushed it “close to a dangerous tipping point,” the United Nations’ special human rights envoy to Cambodia said in March.
Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur to Cambodia on human rights, said that tensions driven by the rivalry between the two parties have grown worse since her last visit in September 2015.
“The political situation, which includes renewed threats, judicial proceedings, and even physical beatings of members of the opposition, is worrying,” she said in a reference to the CPP’s crackdown on CNRP politicians and activists.
Smith and the U.N. experts Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David Kaye, special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression; Maina Kiai, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association specifically singled out the Black Monday activists in May,
“Accusatory statements by senior government officials towards the participants of the so-called ‘Black Monday’ campaign and labeling peaceful protesters as ‘rebel groups’ are highly regrettable,” the experts noted. “Such actions are clearly inconsistent with Cambodia’s obligation under international human rights law to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
On Wednesday, The CNRP asked U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to intervene, calling for an immediate meeting of the signatory countries to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to address the Southeast Asian nation’s dangerous political situation.
The letter charges that checks and balances in the political system no longer exist and that the situation is preventing the democratic aspirations of the Cambodian people from being realized under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than three decades.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed the call for international intervention, saying Cambodia’s political situation is not a state of emergency.
“There are smoke and fires here and there, but the situation is not so dangerous that one can say it is at an alarm stage…” he said. “I think that the opposition party’s tattling of tales about Cambodia’s internal affairs to the U.N. reflects serious confusion.”
Reported by San Sel for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English By Brooks Boliek.