Boats and Choppers Deployed Near CNRP HQ

At least five military helicopters buzzed the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, as five speedboats, some mounted with machine guns, were sent to the river behind the building, and trucks with armed and masked soldiers repeatedly drove past its front.

The deployments came two days after deputy military commander Kun Kim said the armed forces, if asked, would “guarantee” the arrest of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has been hiding inside the building for three months.

Armed soldiers drive past the CNRP's headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Armed soldiers drive past the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Starting just after 11 a.m., the military helicopters began doing circuits above the CNRP building in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Loeu commune in the city’s south, with the speedboats arriving at about 2 p.m. on the Tonle Bassac river behind the headquarters.

Some boats stopped behind the building in the afternoon as trucks with heavily armed and masked soldiers rolled past National Road 2 in front. The Chinese-made Harbin Z-9 helicopters left after it began raining at about 4 p.m.

There were no attempts made to arrest Mr. Sokha, who stands charged with not appearing in court.

Mr. Sokha was summoned to appear months ago for questioning over his alleged mistress’s prostitution case, but did not go. Police tried to arrest him on May 26, and he has since remained free while living in the headquarters.

His trial for refusal to appear in court is set for September 9. He faces one to six months in prison if found guilty.

Air force spokesman Prak Sokha said that the deployments were not intended to intimidate Mr. Sokha or anyone else in the CNRP, and were a regular army exercise.

Troops loiter in boats on the Tonle Bassac river behind the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh yesterday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“It was just military training,” Major General Sokha said. “We just flew around Phnom Penh. We only used four helicopters, and we train like this every day. We will train like this until the end of the year.”

Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat also said that there was no connection to Mr. Sokha, but would not comment on why the military had carried out its training so close to the CNRP’s headquarters.

“It’s not involved with the CNRP. It was a kind of exercise and this movement of forces, like the helicopters, boats and troops on the ground, is normal. All these activities were for study,” General Sucheat said.

“We don’t care where it is. We have the right to do exercises anywhere we want,” he added. “It was a normal training operation to defend security and public order.” 

However, Gen. Sucheat defended Gen. Kim’s comments on Monday and said the military, which does not usually execute civilian arrest warrants—a task left for the police—could indeed arrest Mr. Sokha.

“If we receive a request from the courts, our forces will implement those orders,” he said.

Outside the CNRP’s headquarters, opposition lawmaker Real Camerin said he believed it was clear the deployments were intended to scare the party, but said such an extreme effort would only lead to public anger and belief that the government had lost control.

“In the situation right now, I think the authorities, the armed forces, should not do things like this, because it causes turmoil. But it will not threaten our people and make them scared. Instead it will make their opinion be that our country is unstable,” he said.

A military helicopter flies over the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Sien Sokan, a 48-year-old garment worker who lives near the CNRP headquarters, said the day’s events had brought up bad memories of the fighting during the January 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, and had caused needless fear for many.

“My family is really scared about this situation,” said Ms. Sokan, who left her factory and collected her children at 2 p.m. after learning about the helicopters, boats and trucks.

“My children said, ‘Mom, please leave the factory.’ My children were really scared. You know, in 1979 I saw helicopters and then they started fighting. If they do this, how can I go to work?” she asked.

“I’m worried about my family’s safety.”

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