Cambodia's Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Monday ordered the creation of provincial "standby working groups" to prevent any unrest, as Prime Minister Hun Sen's government cracked down on potential protests ahead of an expected court ruling on whether to dissolve the country's main opposition party.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (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.
In a letter issued Monday, Sar Kheng--who is also Cambodia's deputy prime minister--ordered all provincial and municipal governors to place authorities on call from Nov. 15 to "monitor and settle on a prompt basis ... various issues of concern in connection with any acts of trickery aimed at overthrowing our legitimate government."
Sar Kheng's order followed one issued last week by the Cambodian National Police General Commissariat's Central Department of Public Orders, and signed by department head Sek Phoumy, which 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.
The Ministry of the Interior also said over the weekend that any demonstrations held at the Supreme Court in the capital Phnom Penh would be blocked by authorities.
Civil society groups called Monday's order a restriction on freedom of expression in Cambodia, where Hun Sen's government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions targeting the CNRP, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of general elections slated for July 2018.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service, executive director for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) San Chey said the Ministry of the Interior had effectively banned any protests while the Supreme Court reviews the case against the CNRP, adding that the measure violates Cambodia's constitution and signals a "climax" in political tensions in the country.
"As a matter of fact, this measure was issued in order to prevent any possible protests, and also to intimidate opposition party supporters," he said.
"I believe that if, by [the hearing date], there are any restrictions or blocking of people traveling from one place to another, it will constitute a serious violation of the rights and freedom of our citizens."
Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny told RFA he was not surprised the government had implemented such measures to protect itself from the country's many opposition supporters, who mostly view the charges against Kem Sokha and the CNRP as politically motivated.
"In dissolving a party with a support base of ... nearly 3 million people--like it or not, the authorities must take serious precautions," he said.
"These three million people constitute a huge number. Should each of them show up [on Nov. 16] and lay down to block the roads, the government won't know how to deal with the situation. The concerns expressed by the government are valid, because this is not a minor issue."
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.
U.S. lawmakers threatened to bring sanctions against members of Hun Sen's government if Kem Sokha was not released from jail by a Nov. 9 deadline for voters to register for the July ballot, saying the elections would lack legitimacy without the CNRP, but the prime minister has countered that American laws cannot be applied to his country and rejected the need for international recognition of the polls.
Confident of win
Also on Monday, government lawyers submitted to the Supreme Court a 62-page brief, four additional packages of evidence--bringing to 26 the total number of packages--and a list of all elected CNRP lawmakers and officials who would be subject to a five-year ban on taking part in politics, as part of the case they are building against the opposition party in anticipation of Thursday's hearing.
Speaking to reporters after leaving the court, government lawyer Ky Tech said the Ministry of Interior's legal team was assured of a victory that would lead to the shutdown of the CNRP.
"Since our evidence is concrete, strong and abundant, our lawyers assess that we have a nearly 100 percent chance of winning--that the court will examine this case and decide in our favor by dissolving the CNRP," he said.
However, Kem Sokha's lawyer Hem Socheat questioned what reason the plaintiffs had in submitting additional evidence, which he told RFA was useless in a political case.
"In a criminal case, evidence can constitute either witnesses or objects related to an offense, but this is a political case, so I don't know what kind of evidence can be relevant," he said.
He added that a court decision on whether to dissolve the CNRP is directly linked to the charges against Kem Sokha, who has yet to be tried.
"As for Kem Sokha, he is accused of committing an act of treason, but has the court determined that he is guilty? Not yet. So on what basis will the court determine whether to dissolve the CNRP?"
Pledge to return
Meanwhile, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy said over the weekend that he plans to return to the party on Nov. 16, regardless of whether the Supreme Court rules to dissolve the opposition or not.
Speaking at a workshop on human rights and democracy in Cambodia in California on Nov. 11, Sam Rainsy, who resigned from the CNRP in February in order to preserve the party in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, said he would return to the party as a regular member, and not in any leadership position.
"I request to return to the CNRP because once I resigned from the party, but it was a forced resignation so that the CNRP would not be dissolved," he said.
"If the CNRP is to be dissolved, I request to return to the party. What [the government is] planning in dissolving the CNRP exists only on paper, but they can't dissolve the hearts of more than three million Cambodians."
Sam Rainsy has been living in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated.
It was not immediately clear whether the former CNRP chief intends to return to Cambodia to rejoin the party, but he made clear his support for Kem Sokha as the CNRP's president.
"I still recognize Kem Sokha as the president of the CNRP, and lately he has confirmed his honesty, dignity and integrity," he said.
"I just want to be a simple member of the CNRP, who supports the party as you all do."
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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