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Cambodia’s Top Military Brass Pledges to Oppose Pro-Democracy Protesters

FILE PHOTO - The Army Institute displayed military equipment at a three-day RCAF sports event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 7, 2017. (Hean Socheata/ VOA Khmer)

Earlier this month, Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief, ordered military officials to become front-line soldiers in the “battle of public opinion” using social media site Facebook.

Cambodia’s top military officer has issued a warning against pro-democracy protesters and human rights campaigners who he accuses of interfering in the country’s affairs to sow division.

Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief, told officers during the anniversary celebrations marking the formation of Brigade 70 -- a unit whose history is pitted with credible allegations of criminality and serious rights abuses -- that “Cambodia is an independent and sovereign state that will decide its own fate.”

The comments came just a day after MPs from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party voted to hand out the opposition’s seats to minority parties when the Cambodia National Rescue Party is dissolved by the Supreme Court in a case filed by the CPP.

The CPP amended election laws twice since the 2013 election, firstly to block the CNRP’s then-president Sam Rainsy from the country and most recently to jail his successor, Kem Sokha.

“To protect national peace and security, Cambodia absolutely opposes any activity and internal interference that can cause trouble and divide national unity in the name of democracy and human rights, which is intended to serve the political interests ... of foreigners,” he said.

He continued that the military “regardless of any cost” would oppose “the activity of extremists who obtain support from foreigners with the intention of toppling the legitimate government via the incitement of violence.”

Earlier this month, Saroeun ordered military officials to become front-line soldiers in the “battle of public opinion” using social media site Facebook, despite the institution of the military being ostensibly politically neutral.

His comments came amid a surge in nationalist rhetoric from the Cambodian leadership ahead of what is likely to be a tense general election next year. Sokha, the CNRP president, was jailed early last month on allegations he plotted with a foreign power to overthrow Hun Sen, though no evidence has so far been produced to back up the claims.

General Chhum Socheat, a defense ministry spokesman, said the military had not identified any persons or groups planning a “color revolution” in Cambodia, saying Saroeun’s comments were “not intimidation, it’s a reminder.”

“We will do everything based on the law. The army will protect the legitimate government,” he added.

Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, said Saroeun’s comments were “certainly not appropriate language for a democratic country.”

“But despite the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia has never had a functional democratic system, so sadly this is not surprising,” he added.

Previously, Defense Minister Tea Banh has threatened to “smash the teeth” of pro-democracy protesters, while Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth has said the government will use a “bamboo stick” to beat demonstrators.

On Monday, pro-government website Freshnews reported that a group of senior military officials had announced their resolve to oppose attempts to unseat Hun Sen, while Banh has said that Sokha’s arrest showed the authorities will not be reluctant to take drastic action against perceived threats.