In the midst of an ongoing crackdown on the opposition, armed forces Commander-in-Chief and ruling party standing committee member Pol Saroeun has called on all commanders to crack down on extremist elements before next year’s national elections and to continue the “fight in the war of ideologies”.
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces leader’s comments are in line with those from other senior government and military officials, who have repeatedly called on their subordinates to stamp out purported attempts to overthrow the Cambodian People’s Party-led government.
The statements come during one of the tensest political chapters in recent memory, with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha jailed on widely decried charges of “treason”, and other members of the party under investigation for being “spies” in his alleged plot to topple the government.
At a meeting to discuss RCAF’s nine-month report, Saroeun on Tuesday said his commanders needed to keep their forces on alert to prevent “ill-intended people” from causing “chaos”.
“[We] must increase precaution in strongly preventing extremism or any actions that bring chaos in society that causes the destruction of peace,” General Saroeun said in a post to his Facebook page summarising his remarks.
He added that soldiers must be trained in fighting alternative narratives being published on Facebook – a stance that recalls the Ministry of Interior’s recent training of provincial officials and members of the media on how to portray the legitimacy of the CPP’s actions against the CNRP.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached for comment on the remarks.
Yesterday, meanwhile, Sar Thet, deputy National Police chief and nephew of Interior Minister Sar Kheng, told authorities in Kampong Speu that persons looking to incite the destruction of peace must be smashed, pointing particularly to demonstrations. His comments came after a police training exercise on anti-demonstration tactics.
“Armed forces must have the capability to respond to incidents that take place, and the training forces must help to prevent any illegal protests and demonstrations,” he said.
Photos of the training showed, among other things, heavily armed authorities arresting mock protesters at gunpoint.
The latest remarks follow months of similar statements made by Defence Minister Tea Bahn – who promised to “smash the teeth” of opposition protesters – and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said there would be 100 or 200 bodies in the streets if attempts were made to change the government. Both comments were made in the run-up to June’s commune elections.
The UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, foreign embassies and election monitors said at the time the intimidating rhetoric made it difficult to call the otherwise smooth commune elections truly “free and fair”.
“I remain concerned at the atmosphere of intimidation and threats of violence, including by high-level officials, in the lead-up to the election and in the weeks which have followed,” Smith said during a visit to the Kingdom in August.