PHNOM PENH —
Defense Minister Tea Banh says Cambodia’s soldiers should have the right to support demonstrations.
Speaking at the airport as he waited for Prime Minister Hun Sen to arrive from an official visit to France, Tea Banh said his troops have a right to “express their opinion.”
His statements come following violent anti-opposition protests on Monday, during which two opposition lawmakers were pulled from their vehicles and severely beaten.
“It’s not wrong for them to support this [demonstration],” Tea Banh said. “Now they support it, so they didn’t commit any wrongdoing. It’s their right to express opinions, meaning they didn’t commit any violence. This is their right because all the military are the same human beings, as general people, who can be ill and hungry or get angry. It’s not strange for them to do this because they are like other general people.”
Human Rights Watch has condemned the attacks, following the anti-opposition demonstration on Monday, saying that witnesses identified members of the military, police and para-police amid the “protesters.”
About 1,000 people had gathered at the National Assembly to call for the ouster of Cambodia National Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha from parliament. Many had dispersed before the attacks on lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamreoun.
Offering a conflicting view to Tea Banh’s, Hing Bun Heang, commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, said that military personnel do not take part in demonstrations.
“The army is under the command of deputy prime minister and the minister of the Ministry of National Defense and has a duty to protect the social security or the people,” he said. “They can’t do any demonstrations.”
Meanwhile, in a speech posted on Hun Sen’s Facebook Wednesday, the premier condemned the attacks, saying the authorities will find the perpetrators and bring them to trial, even if they are members of his Cambodian People’s Party. But he said Monday’s protest could be seen as a “side-effect” of protests by pro-opposition supporters, including those staged against him while he was in Paris.
“We will not tolerate or forgive perpetrators, regardless whom they are,” he said. “Whether they are CPP supporters, opposition supporters, anyone who commits such disgraceful deeds, they should be arrested and punished.”
Hun Sen claims the protest was called off at 11 am, but the attacks occurred after noon. “There were no remaining protesters.”
An investigation is underway, he said, urging witnesses to come forward. And he said the National Assembly should pay for the medical bills and damage to the lawmakers’ vehicles.