Cambodia’s government is building up the presence of security forces across the country in anticipation of a public outcry in response to a court decision that could see the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) dissolved in the lead up to next year’s general election.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Cambodia’s Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to disband the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.
International rights groups urged the Supreme Court to assert its independence from the CPP and dismiss the case against the opposition, but armed forces continued to stream into Cambodia’s urban areas Wednesday, suggesting the decision to dissolve the CNRP was a done deal a day ahead of the hearing.
More than 300 security personnel conducted exercises at police headquarters in the seat of western Cambodia’s Battambang province on Wednesday morning before being deployed to various posts around the city.
In a video clip posted on the website of the provincial police, Battambang governor Nguon Ratanak instructs the troops to crack down on anyone who protests the outcome of Thursday’s decision, expressing concern that “people may be easily fooled and incited to stand up against the government by political groups.”
The buildup of security personnel in Battambang and other parts of the country followed an order earlier this week by Interior Minister Sar Kheng to create provincial “standby working groups” from Nov. 15 “monitor and settle on a prompt basis … various issues of concern in connection with any acts of trickery aimed at overthrowing our legitimate government.”
Last week, the Cambodian National Police General Commissariat’s Central Department of Public Orders, instructed subordinate branches to establish 24-hour standby groups of combat-uniformed security forces ready to “mobilize” when the Supreme Court hears the CNRP dissolution case.
Residents of Battambang told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that they were intimidated by the buildup, and viewed it as an encroachment on their rights.
“I feel very bad that we are being deprived of our freedoms of speech and assembly,” said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t want [the authorities] to do this, but I can’t say anything for fear that I might be mistreated.”
Another resident called the troop deployment a “pretext to suppress the people” from voicing criticism of how the government is running the country, which he said was “illegal.”
“The government is violating both national and international law with what they are doing,” said the resident, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“Now they’re trying to cover up their wrongdoings by repressing people who want to stand up against them. The people should not be prohibited from protesting peacefully.”
Cambodian government and military officials have made numerous threats to use force against anyone who protests the dissolution of the CNRP or demonstrates against the results of elections.
In May, ahead of Cambodia’s commune ballot, Tea Banh warned that the army would “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the CPP and quickly suppress any opposition protests like those that followed the CNRP’s loss in national elections in 2013.
Call to resist
Also on Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia’s Supreme Court to “resist government pressure” to dissolve the CNRP and urged the country’s international donors and supporters to state that dissolution of the party would delegitimize general elections scheduled for July 2018.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics, and Human Rights Watch said in its statement that the government’s case against the CNRP fails to prove the party’s illegality.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.
“Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.”
Hun Sen has announced that when the CNRP is dissolved, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other government-aligned political parties, and has pressured CNRP officials who were elected in the June commune ballot to defect to the CPP.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, more than half of CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Human Rights Watch suggested that the “planned dissolution” of the CNRP is “part of a massive, broader crackdown by Hun Sen and the CPP against all forms of peaceful dissent” that has also seen the government orchestrate the closure of independent media outlets and restrict nongovernmental organizations in recent months.
“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” Adams said.
“Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”
The government crackdown on Wednesday claimed former RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, who were detained on suspicion of “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” although Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak has declined to comment on what evidence led authorities to arrest the two men.
Observers have questioned whether the Supreme Court, which is filled with senior members and close affiliates of the ruling party, will be able to come to a fair decision on the case against the CNRP.
The court’s chief justice Dith Muny is a member of the CPP’s top-level Permanent Committee and vice chief of justice Khim Ponn is a member of the CPP’s Central Committee, while other top court officials are related to Hun Sen’s family through marriage or have close ties to the CPP.
Yoeung Sotheara, a legal officer with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), said the court is too closely linked to the government to rule on the case.
“Legally speaking, for justice to be done and seen to be done, any adjudicating judges or court officials who have a conflict of interest in the case would have to recuse himself,” he said.
He noted that the CNRP had not assigned any lawyers to defend the case, suggesting that the party “has no faith in judicial proceedings before courts that have always ruled against it.”
But CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan rejected concerns that the court would be unable to exercise independence in the case.
“It is common that the ruling party would appoint judges and judicial officials—there is nothing wrong in this,” he said.
“The court proceedings won’t be based on political interference. The court will adjudicate on the case based on evidence, applicable laws and the people’s wishes. One should refrain from making any comments that can be viewed as pressuring the court.”
Hun Sen has publicly stated at least three times in the past two months that he was absolutely certain the CNRP would be dissolved on Nov. 16, in one case offering odds of 100 to 1 to anyone willing to bet against it.
Sok Eysan said Hun Sen’s statements were “based on legal and factual grounds that there is a 100 percent certainty of the CNRP’s guilt,” but added that they were just the prime minister’s “personal view.”
“I don’t think such remarks have any influence on the court decision—I don’t believe the court will use his remarks as its reason to dissolve the opposition party.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.