Security forces started searching vehicles entering Phnom Penh along all major roads Thursday morning in advance of a mass demonstration planned by the opposition CNRP for Saturday.
The CNRP called the checkpoints an illegal and futile attempt to stop its supporters from attending the mass meeting.
Phnom Penh municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said city officials issued an order to all district governors last week to start searching vehicles for weapons, ammunition and explosives, but not to stop protesters from entering the capital.
“We do this not only for the demonstration but also to protect the people as a whole,” Mr. Dimanche said. “We are concerned that ill-intended people or opportunists who pretend to take part in the demonstration may cause trouble.”
And although the checkpoints were set up only yesterday, Mr. Dimanche sought to downplay the search order and declined to say how long it would stay in effect.
“These checkpoints are normal and not special for today. We just do it to protect the people,” he said.
Government officials have for weeks warned that the opposition’s demonstration could turn violent and level accusations that the CNRP was harboring terrorist infiltrators, a claim the opposition has strenuously denied.
The government has also redeployed hundreds of soldiers and several armored personnel carriers to Phnom Penh in recent weeks, stationed more military police along major roads and conducted three drills on crowd control techniques replete with gas masks, batons and shields and high-pressure water cannon trucks.
For its part, the CNRP has consistently called for their demonstration—against the government’s refusal to agree to an independent investigation of the July 28 national election results, which remains marred by widespread reports of irregularities—to be peaceful.
CNRP officials have held two training exercises in nonviolent demonstration techniques for their supporters.
On Phnom Penh’s northern outskirts Thursday, beneath the Prek Kdam bridge along National Road 5, some two-dozen police and military police officers searched vehicles heading southbound toward the city center. The police, military police and plainclothes officers questioned drivers, boarded larger buses, opened luggage compartments—even some luggage—checked car trunks, and peered into glove compartments.
One passenger on a minivan traveling to Phnom Penh was ordered off the vehicle and escorted by police to a table of officials where his jacket was patted down and confiscated for the sole reason that it had a camouflage design.
“They just asked me to take my jacket off because they don’t want me to wear it,” said the man, who declined to give his name. After having his jacket confiscated, the authorities let the man reboard the van and continue on his way.
“I don’t know if it’s related to the demonstration, but it’s strange that they took my jacket,” he said.
Authorities were not seen detaining or turning anyone around. They said they had found a few knives, but no other weapons.
A plainclothes official who was helping lead the vehicle searches but declined to give his name or position because he was not authorized to speak with the media said the sole focus was on finding weapons.
“It doesn’t matter about the demonstration because we focus on checking for weapons and ammunition,” he said. “If we don’t find any weapons or ammunition, we let them go.”
A similar operation was underway Thursday in Kandal, where provincial police chief Iv Chamroeun said he had been searching vehicles heading toward Phnom Penh along National Road 2 for the past week. He denied the checkpoint and search had anything to do with the opposition’s coming demonstration.
“We pay attention to the security of the general public; we’re not preventing anything,” he said.
But CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the checkpoints were a thinly veiled attempt to keep Saturday’s demonstration small.
“They try to block the people coming into the city to participate in the demonstration; it is a violation of their freedom of expression,” he said.
Mr. Sovann said the attempt was bound to fail, however, because most of the people planning to join the event were already in Phnom Penh and the few who were not would find their way into the city regardless of the roadblocks.
“I think all the people are in the city; no need to block the roads,” he said.
The CNRP is expecting at least 20,000 supports to turn out for the event at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, a figure equal to the number that attended a CNRP rally at the park late last month.