If the aim of the movement of armored personnel carriers (APCs) to Phnom Penh on Thursday was to frighten and intimidate people in the wake of the contested national election, it worked.
In this dusty and somewhat tranquil corner of Sen Sok district’s Samraong commune, the raucous engines of six APCs interrupted the quiet on Thursday at about 3 p.m. Residents on Friday said they are now confused and scared about the military’s movements in the area and even say they have started stockpiling rice, leading to a rise in the commodity’s price.
Wat Chan Borei Vong occupies a relatively vast and empty plot of land down a sleepy road off National Road 5. It is home to 65 monks and the sound of even a gaggle of geese cuts through the air. It was here that the six APCs, mounted with recoilless guns, parked on Thursday afternoon to the shock of residents.
It was the first time in a decade that heavy armor has been deployed anywhere in the country other than the Thai border.
“I felt scared because I wasn’t expecting it,” said 42-year-old Nok Ra, who is helping construct a new pagoda on the land.
Neither did 19-year-old monk Ra Sophorn, who said he was terrified to see the APCs pull into the grounds.
“I felt scared when I saw them come into the pagoda; I have never seen a tank in a pagoda before,” he said. “They are supposed to be at the border. It made all the people in the country worried when they saw the tanks moving—it is related to the election and they are being used to intimidate people.”
Ra Sophorn said permission to station the APCs in the grounds of the pagoda was sought from the chief monk, who could not be reached on Friday, and that the soldiers departed at roughly 11 p.m. Thursday in the direction of Phnom Penh.
“If they’d brought the tanks into the city during the day, people would have been scared, so they left at night,” Ra Sophorn said. “In the city, the Cambodia National Rescue Party [CNRP] got a lot of votes and the CPP lost, so they brought the tanks in to scare voters. This is not good,” the monk said.
Military officials declined to comment on the mobilization Friday, and the whereabouts of the APCs after they left in the direction of Phnom Penh could not be verified.
On Thursday, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Brigadier General Phen Sothy denied there was a connection between the deployment of the armored vehicles from the Thai-Cambodian border and the contested outcome of the July 28 national election, insisting that the APCs were mobilized because they are in need of repairs.
Still, photographs posted on Facebook also claimed to show APCs traveling along National Road 6 on Thursday in Batheay district, Kompong Cham province. A video posted on the website on Friday also purported to show large military trucks bearing razor-wire barricades heading toward Phnom Penh and other military convoys with their loads covered.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday confirmed that the deployment is part of an effort to stave off social unrest in the wake of the election.
On the day of the election, the CPP claimed victory with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, which the latter rejected. The CNRP said its calculations point to a victory with at least 63 seats.
Sreng Chi, 56, who lives beside the pagoda in Sen Sok district, is not convinced that the authorities have the people’s best interests at heart and said she shook with fear when the APCs arrived.
“If there is a war, I don’t know where I will go,” she said. “People here in the village want to know if the intentions are good or bad—I haven’t seen tanks for a very long time. Everybody here is preparing rice and everything as if there is going to be a war.”
A vendor on National Road 5 said the price of rice had risen in the area since the arrival of the military vehicles, and that locals are worried about violence.
Farther up the road, a Tela petrol station worker said he had heard rumors of a deployment of 10 APCs near the Prek Liep bridge, though people in that area said they had not seen any.
The stockpile of razor-wire barricades, however, could clearly be seen inside the grounds of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters on Friday.
Phnom Penh deputy municipal police chief Pen Rath said he too had seen the pictures of the barricades online. “But I cannot talk about them because I am afraid I will do wrong,” he said.
Inside the grounds of Wat Botum in Phnom Penh, two white tents initially erected to house polling stations are now home to about 20 men in military uniforms brought in after the election to monitor the situation, according to people in the area who declined to be named.
“We are stationed here,” said one of three men hanging around in military fatigues on Friday, declining to comment further.
Until now, the only threats of violence during the post-election period have come from the CPP itself.
After his party said it lost a total of 22 seats at the polls on July 28, Prime Minister Hun Sen at first appeared conciliatory but later warned again of severe social chaos in Phnom Penh should the opposition demonstrate publicly.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann urged people concerned about the military mobilization to remain calm and said the party is doing its best to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner.
“I would like to appeal to people to stay calm,” he said. “The CNRP has no military and weapons—only one side can make war. We try our best to solve the problem peacefully. We assure people that we are political leaders and have to be responsible for what happened and make sure it goes smoothly.”
For 52-year-old Heng Hin, who clearly remembers the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, that is of paramount importance.
“The last time I saw a tank was in 1993,” he said at the pagoda in Sen Sok district, occasionally rubbing a battered CPP hat resting on his knee.
“My generation is scared of war, and I don’t want my children to have to see it. The two parties need to solve their problems.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)