Critics Blast Plan to Pit Troops Against Protesters

Rights workers on Monday questioned the Defense Ministry’s plan to recruit an additional 700 soldiers to help military police contend with demonstrations in Phnom Penh, saying the proposal raised the risk that excessive force would be used against peaceful protesters.

On Saturday, Defense Minister Tea Banh announced his intention to reinforce the ranks of the military’s Phnom Penh-based Brigade 70 next year, after military police reportedly told him they were unable to effectively handle a recent influx of protesters.

Police and military police have themselves been heavily criticized for their use of disproportionate force during demonstrations in Phnom Penh over the past year.

On January 3, military police fired into a crowd of garment workers protesting for a higher minimum wage, killing at least five people and wounding dozens more. Police also used deadly force during demonstrations in September and November, killing two bystanders.

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights lawyer, said that by deploying more soldiers against protesters, the government risked causing further bloodshed, because soldiers are trained in combat—not law enforcement.

“They [military police] know about the law, the military knows about fighting,” said Mr. Sam Oeun, who ran a U.N. police training school in refugee camps along the Thai border in the 1980s.

Mr. Sam Oeun also served as a soldier in one of the military factions aligned against Vietnamese forces after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

“I was trained for killing, not to maximize protection,” he said. “Using soldiers [against protesters] is more dangerous than using military police, because they [police] know a little about the law.”

Many countries have restrictions on how and when their militaries can be used in law enforcement. The U.S.’ Posse Comitatus Act forbids the army or air force from enforcing state laws except in cases spelled out in the constitution or expressly authorized by Congress.

Cambodia had no such legal provisions, Mr. Sam Oeun noted, but he said it should.

“For me, the military should not be involved in domestic affairs unless the king announces a national emergency,” he said.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said she interpreted Gen. Banh’s announcement to mean that the additional troops would be used to quell unrest both in Phnom Penh and in the provinces, the latter being especially worrying.

“We know from experience in rural areas that whenever soldiers are used against villagers, there is almost always extreme violence, and in some cases fatalities,” Ms. Pilorge said.

In Phnom Penh and the 12 provinces where the rights group works, Licadho investigated 10 fatal shootings and eight non-fatal shootings of protesters by soldiers and military police between January 2012 and November 2013.

Ms. Pilorge said Cambodia’s 1997 Law on the General Statue of Military Personnel ought to bar Gen. Banh’s “outrageous” plan for the new soldiers.

“Unless it’s martial law, which it isn’t, it’s outrageous and it’s against national and international law,” she said.

The 1997 law seems to outline a peaceful role for the military, limited to providing aid in cases of strife and natural disaster.

“In necessary circumstances,” the law states, “the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces may involve in the defense of public security and shall be as assistants to citizens who are encountering difficulties or disasters.”

In his speech Saturday, Gen. Banh did not specify whether the request for additional troops in the capital had come from national or municipal military police.

National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito on Monday denied that his forces had asked the Defense Ministry for help.

“We did not request the recruitment of 700 soldiers, because we have enough forces,” Brigadier General Tito said.

Major General Roth Sreang, commander of the municipal military police, also said he was not aware of such a request.

Officials at the Defense Ministry could not be reached for comment.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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