Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh on Monday ordered the armed forces to cooperate with all state institutions and local authorities in defending the country against the leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), ahead of their planned return from exile next month.
Speaking at an event in the capital Phnom Penh to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Brigade 70, Tea Banh said that acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy and other senior party officials had “crossed a red line” by “calling for a coup d’etat” against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, and ordered their suppression, along with that of their supporters.
“We cannot tolerate these people [CNRP leaders and supporters] and allow them to live in peace,” he said, calling for “effective cooperation” and the use of “all measures” to stop them from returning to Cambodia.
“In any place where there are incitements and the stirring up of society in any form that may impact our security, we must take direct measures to prevent them from strengthening their cause and creating full-fledged chaos. We have to suppress them while their movement remains small!”
Tea Banh made his remarks following a parade and display of military hardware at the headquarters of Brigade 70, an elite RCAF brigade that was once Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and has been linked to political assassinations, gross abuses of power and illegal logging syndicates.
Present at the anniversary event were senior military personnel, including commanders and generals of the RCAF, and senior officials of the Ministry of Defense, as well as Hun Sen’s eldest son, three-star General Hun Manet, and four-star General Sao Sokha.
Following Tea Banh’s speech, Brigade 70 commander and deputy commander of the RCAF Mao Sophan vowed that his troops stand ready to enforce the order and “smash” anyone who conspires to destroy the peace through a “color revolution” in Cambodia.
“We stand ready to enforce all orders to smash any conspiracies attempting to destroy the peace that was attained through the difficulties and great sacrifices of our people,” he said.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since August, when the party announced Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, calling on supporters and members of the armed forces to join him, but Hun Sen and other leaders in his government have vowed to arrest the CNRP chief as soon as he sets foot inside the country.
The CNRP says Sam Rainsy is returning to lead a “restoration of democracy” in Cambodia, following the arrest of party president Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the CNRP two months later for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
In a recent interview, Sam Rainsy referred to King Norodom Sihamoni as Hun Sen’s “puppet,” leading to a conviction for “insulting the king” in absentia. The conviction was the latest move against him by Cambodia’s courts, which in September charged him and seven other CNRP officials, as well as his wife, with “attempting to stage a coup” in connection with his planned return.
On Monday, senior opposition leader Um Sam An called Tea Banh’s order “gravely illegal,” noting that troops should only be sent to the border to protect Cambodia from foreign invasion.
“Tea Banh’s order of his troops to suppress our innocent people and opposition activists is an illegal act and, if this comes to pass, the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) will certainly bring these leaders—particularly Hun Sen—to justice,” he said.
“Hun Sen and Tea Banh are concerned with losing their power, since they used it in an authoritarian way to destroy democracy and dissolve the opposition party. The people are merely planning to protest peacefully and nonviolently in accordance with the constitution, so why are they planning to use the armed forces to suppress the unarmed?”
Tea Banh’s comments came a day after Interior Minister Sar Kheng said that Sam Rainsy’s return will cause war and a create a rift between Cambodians, while speaking at an event to mark a water festival in Battambang province.
Sar Kheng, who is also deputy prime minister and acting in Hun Sen’s stead while the long-ruling strongman is on an official visit to Eastern Europe, said Sam Rainsy must be arrested for insulting the King and urging the armed forces to disobey orders from the government.
“A group led by Sam Rainsy keeps declaring their intention to return, but this repatriation is not in order to bring about peace at all, as we already enjoy that,” he said. “In contrast, this declaration will cause war and rifts.”
Call for compromise
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Heng Kimhong, the project officer for local rights group People Center for Development and Peace (PDP), said it is time for Cambodian politicians to compromise via dialogue to heal the nation and avoid a return to the difficulties of the Khmer Rouge regime, whose leadership oversaw the killing of nearly two million Cambodians during its 1975-79 reign of terror.
“Our leaders and politicians should act as role models for our future generations through acts of compromise, reconciliation and social solidarity,” he said.
“We have already witnessed enough through our long history of suffering and tragedy. It is time that we employ peace by starting a dialogue and creating a new political culture.”
Outspoken political commentator Kim Sok questioned government claims that Sam Rainsy and the CNRP could organize the forces and territory to effectively stage a “war.”
“The Sar Kheng and Hun Sen clique seemingly devised a tactic to use Sam Rainsy’s name and that of other opposition activists as the orchestraters of a coup d’etat, turning the situation into a battle so that they can illegally maintain power,” he said.
CNRP Vice-President Mu Sochua told RFA said that in the face of threats of sanctions from Western nations over the reversals of democratic freedoms in Cambodia, Hun Sen has chosen to double down and “further violate these rights.”
“This includes the mounting number of daily arrests and ordering the deployment of troops in order to smash and obliterate the opposition,” she said.
Mu Sochua said that she and other CNRP leaders are returning to open a dialogue with Hun Sen and work to avoid sanctions, reiterating that the party’s plans are nonviolent and peaceful in nature.
Police have made multiple arrests of Sam Rainsy’s supporters in recent weeks, bringing to at least 46 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and at least 182 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to the mistreatment. At least five activists are currently in hiding amid the crackdown.
On Sunday, authorities sent CNRP Battambang provincial councilors Dim Saroeun and Ley Sokhon; Sok Phat, a member of CNRP operations for Battambang’s Samlot district; and Men Yorn, the deputy head of CNRP operations for Samlot district; to Prey Sar Prison for pre-trial detention, following their arrests a day earlier for “plotting a coup.”
Pen Mom, another CNRP activist, was arrested on Saturday in Kampot province’s Chhouk district on a similar charge.
On Monday, authorities arrested CNRP Phon Sophea, the former CNRP chief of Chheu Khmao district, in Kandal province’s Koh Thom district, also for activities related to the overthrow of the government.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.