Crowning the newfound detente between the government and the opposition party, a 12-man unit of armed Interior Ministry bodyguards has been assigned to ensure opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s safety, officials said Wednesday.
The bodyguards, equipped with four AK-47 assault rifles and two K59 pistols, took up residence at Sam Rainsy Party headquarters on Tuesday, marking the first time that armed men have been assigned to protect opposition figures.
Opposition officials said the firepower was necessary to protect their newly returned leader, though the government was no longer their concern when it came to the issue of security.
“There are groups of people that are afraid to lose their benefits in the 2008 [national] election,” said Meng Rita, opposition party acting secretary-general.
Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said the security detail was dispatched following a request from the opposition.
Sam Rainsy’s call to change the country’s electoral quota from two thirds of National Assembly seats to just half of the seats plus one may have earned him enemies in some quarters, Khieu Kanharith said.
Though denying that he had requested the bodyguards, Sam Rainsy did admit by telephone that their presence made him “feel warm.”
“My colleagues asked the government to take care of my security. I am not concerned myself,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said the force showed that the government was now interested in Sam Rainsy’s well-being, and said the presence of the bodyguards was a “positive sign.”
“It is a neutral government force. They can protect our security,” he said.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he was not impressed.
In 2006, the government should be focused on taking weapons out of politics, not putting more in, Koul Panha said.
“The government should be making the country free from weapons,” he said.