PHNOM PENH —
Civil society leaders have called for the head of Cambodia’s army to remain neutral following comments he made earlier this week warning demonstrators not to hold protests without government approval.
General Tea Banh, the minister of defense, accused civil society groups in a speech on Thursday of trying to topple the government of the Cambodian People’s Party, led by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Banh also laid into a protest campaign known as Black Monday, which has seen demonstrators gathering dressed in black to call for the release of several rights workers and an election official accused of bribery in a politically charged case against the deputy leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha.
“Their major objective was to do whatever they can to topple the legitimate government, or frankly speaking, they want to overthrow the government led by the Cambodian People’s Party,” Banh said during the speech.
He further warned that the authorities would take “measures” against “anyone who causes disturbances to the progress of development”.
Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, told VOA that civil society groups were only working to advocate for the release of the rights workers and deputy secretary general of the National Election Committee, Ny Chakrya.
The group was detained on May 1 and charged a day later with bribery and being an accomplice to bribery, allegations they deny.
“He as a military representative or national protector must stick to a neutral stance,” Mora said. “So what he mentioned seems not to be right for civil society organizations.”
Vorn Pao, leader of an informal workers association, IDEA, said civil society groups had no ulterior motives aimed at overthrowing the government, adding that he saw the comments from the defense minister as intimidation.
Chakrya was charged with being an accomplice to bribery along with four staff members of local human rights group Adhoc, who were each charged with bribery. They are alleged to have attempted to pay a key witness in an ongoing legal case against opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha to not provide evidence to court investigators.