Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense on Tuesday defended minister Tea Banh ordering the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to use any means necessary to suppress the country’s opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), as its leaders prepare to return from exile next month.
Speaking in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday, 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.
“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,” he said, adding that it is the duty of the country’s security forces to “suppress [the CNRP] while their movement remains small!”
Tea Banh’s comments prompted a rebuke from senior opposition leader Um Sam An, who called the order “gravely illegal,” noting that troops should only be sent to the border to protect Cambodia from foreign invasion, and warning that such a move would be answered with legal action in the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that Tea Banh’s comments were warranted because a Cambodian court in September charged Sam Rainsy and seven other CNRP officials, as well as Sam Rainsy’ wife, with “attempting to stage a coup” in connection with his planned return.
“The armed forces’ role, as stated in the constitution, is to protect the nation, religion and the king, so Tea Banh’s comment on Oct. 14 is a legitimate order that armed forces must comply with, because it is about maintaining security, peace and stability,” the statement read.
“If there are conflicts between political parties, the armed forces must be neutral. But the armed forces can’t forgive Sam Rainsy’s treasonous acts, nor those of his accomplices.”
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.
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.
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.
Leaders traveling to Asia
Meanwhile, senior CNRP leaders who are living in exile in North America and Europe have begun traveling to Southeast Asian nations in anticipation of Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia, the party’s vice president Mu Sochua told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.
“Some people have already arrived in Asia,” she said, though she declined to say who and where they had traveled to.
“Sam Rainsy’s repatriation is part of a bid to resolve national issues—not a plot to topple Hun Sen’s government. It’s part of a bid to restore democracy, which inevitably leads to position changes [within government].”
Senior CNRP member Sor Chandeth said he plans to leave Canada “soon” to accompany Sam Rainsy on his return to Cambodia.
“This is the time to liberate the country from Hun Sen’s grip,” he said of the strongman who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades and is Asia’s longest-serving leader.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said that while the government won’t prevent Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia, he will be arrested as soon as he enters the country and sent to prison immediately to begin serving time for his many convictions in absentia—court rulings that the opposition leader has dismissed as politically motivated.
Sok Ey San noted that the government had “destroyed Pol Pot”—the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the killing of nearly two million Cambodians during its 1975-79 reign of terror—so that “a small group from the CNRP doesn’t stand a chance.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.