A Phnom Penh police unit responsible for intervening during protests and demonstrations publicized a training exercise featuring the use of live rounds on Monday, in what one opposition lawmaker labeled an intimidation tactic.
The two-day training of the special intervention unit, the police unit often present at large gatherings in the capital, began on Sunday and sought to give 150 young municipal police officers experience firing real bullets, according to a post on the unit’s Facebook page on Monday.
“The training with live rounds was made to strengthen the ability to protect security and order for people and the legal royal government,” the post says.
The training was led by Chuon Sovann, the municipal police chief and deputy National Police commissioner, and Prum Channa, the head of the special intervention unit.
General Sovann and Mr. Channa could not be reached on Monday, but Mr. Channa was quoted by government-aligned Fresh News as saying the training was held in order to “protect the legal government” and the people.
“This live round test is to strengthen our ability before we take operation,” Mr. Channa is quoted as saying. “If we did not know how to use the weapons, when we go to take the operation, we wouldn’t get success.”
The special intervention unit was created in 2015, when 200 National Police officers went to train with “infantry weapons” under the guidance of the military’s elite airborne Brigade 911 unit, which has been accused by rights groups of human rights violations relating to the suppression of garment worker protests in 2014.
CNRP lawmaker Kong Sophea, who was brutally beaten by members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit outside the National Assembly in 2015, called the live-round training a possible sign that the government intends to “crack down [in the] next election.”
“It is a threat to the atmosphere before the election, and makes the opposition’s path become smaller and smaller,” Mr. Sophea said, adding that the live-round exercise, combined with the previous rhetoric of Mr. Hun Sen and other government officials, concerned the opposition.
“There will be no rights, freedom, justice or transparent competition in 2018,” he said.
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of election watchdog Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), declined to comment on the training, saying it was a “police matter,” but added that he did not anticipate demonstrations after next year’s national election.
“We don’t think there will be demonstrations [against the election result], because we trust the [National Election Committee],” he said, adding that so far the pre-election environment has been calm.
Prior to commune elections in June, Mr. Hun Sen said he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent the overthrow of the government, while Defense Minister Tea Banh threatened to “smash the teeth” of political opponents who sought to demonstrate against the election results.
Independent election observers raised concerns about the rhetoric in their reports on June’s contest, saying the intimidation harmed the integrity of the pre-election period.
The threats appear to have continued beyond June’s contest. Last week, Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth said that Mr. Hun Sen had instructed officials to beat anyone who protests against next year’s election with bamboo poles.