SA’ANG DISTRICT, Kandal Province – Several hundred civilian supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen, backed up by an equal number of military police and provincial police armed with automatic rifles, batons and tear gas launchers, forced opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to cancel a meeting with party followers Tuesday.
The hundreds of CPP supporters—which included older farmers and young men sporting tight-cropped, military-style haircuts—gathered at Koh Touch pagoda and were explicit in their intentions to respond with force should Mr. Rainsy or Mr. Sokha attempt to hold the meeting, or criticize Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP government.
“If they [CNRP] continue to try and hold this [meeting], then fighting would be unavoidable,” said Khorn Liheang, 33, a CPP supporter interviewed at the pagoda Tuesday afternoon.
“We want political leaders to sit at the negotiating table, not hold the people hostage” with protests, said Mr. Liheang, who carried a two-way radio and appeared to be an organizer of the CPP supporters dressed in civilian clothes.
“I cannot anticipate what would happen if they criticize the CPP, which I support. I would not be able to be patient if they attack my party,” he said.
Several other civilians waiting at the pagoda declined to respond when asked why they were there. Some simply said they hated the CNRP.
Mr. Liheang said that he and his colleagues had turned out “to protect the community’s interests from interference and destruction by CNRP supporters.”
The show of civilian, pro-CPP force materialized Tuesday just three days after Mr. Hun Sen warned his critics that they could soon “taste” the strength of his popularity, and issued a call to CPP voters to “be ready to oppose all acts that lack responsibility and have the characteristics of a coup.”
“Previously, the CPP didn’t use the force of its supporters and members,” Mr. Hun Sen said his speech in Kratie province on Saturday, adding: “If Hun Sen comes out to do something, it’s not going to be small. Action will be taken when it’s time to do it, so be clear about that.”
With the hundreds of pro-Hun Sen civilians and numerous units of the police and military police waiting in anticipation of a showdown with the CNRP, who had planned to meet at the home of a deputy commune chief some 500 meters from the pagoda, the atmosphere in Troeuy Sla commune was tense.
Local residents and CNRP supporters stood in groups outside their houses on the approach road to the pagoda, telling travelers that the opposition leaders’ visit to the area had been called off because of the presence of proxy forces who were bent on provoking trouble.
Suon Nhor, an opposition-aligned deputy chief of Troeuy Sla commune, who had organized the meeting inside his home Tuesday, said it was finally called off in the afternoon to prevent “bloodshed.”
“We chose to be defeated by this threat in order to protect our lives,” he said, adding that the CPP supporters who descended on the area were, he claimed, mostly members of local commune and village security forces, which are organized by the Interior Ministry.
Sa’ang district governor Khem Channkiry said the situation was “tense” Tuesday because about 1,000 government supporters had shown up to protest against the CNRP, which then necessitated the deployment of police and military police to “protect the security of both sides.”
“No one organized them. It is their right to protest, and we could not stop them. They came by themselves because they could not be patient any longer because of the routine disturbance by the CNRP,” Mr. Channkiry said.
However, Eath Yong, an opposition-aligned first deputy chief of Koh Khsach Ponlea commune and a former medical worker in Sa’ang district, said he did not recognize any of the pro-CPP civilians who had shown up in the area to derail the CNRP meeting.
“They are new people brought in by trucks. If they were from Troeuy Sla commune or live in Sa’ang district, I would know them,” said 70-year-old Mr. Yong.
“I do not know where they are from. Look at their faces, they are very serious and they were ready to attack,” he said.
Calling off the CNRP meeting in Sa’ang due to the threat of violence, the opposition later held a press conference at party headquarters in Phnom Penh attended by Mr. Rainsy, Mr. Sokha and Eng Chhay Eang, chief of the CNRP’s working group in Kandal province.
Mr. Chhay Eang said that Mr. Channkiry, the Sa’ang district governor, had informed the opposition on Monday that the meeting could not be held in Troeuy Sla commune, and on Monday night trucks carrying “bodyguards” in civilian clothes had arrived from Takhmau city and slept overnight at the Sa’ang district offices before deploying at the pagoda Tuesday morning.
“We were not worried about the armed forces [at the pagoda]. What we were worried about was the civilian forces wearing red krama scarves around their necks and hiding in the crowd of people who came to attend the meeting,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
General Hing Bun Heang, commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, which is based in nearby Takhmau city, denied Mr. Chhay Eang’s allegation that members of the unit had been sent to Troeuy Sla commune to disrupt the opposition meeting.
“The bodyguards protect the leader…. The obligations of the bodyguards are not political,” Gen. Bun Heang said, accusing the opposition of defaming the unit for alleging it was “interfering in demonstrations.”
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)