A little over a week after Cambodians went to the polls on July 28, a mortar shell exploded outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in the early hours of the morning, shattering the window of a nearby bank but leaving nobody injured.
The following day on August 8, two M381 rocket grenade shells were discovered on a windowsill of a house in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district. They never saw the inside of the M79 grenade launcher for which they were designed.
Then, on August 14, a bomb made using TNT powder exploded outside the ruling CPP’s headquarters in Kompong Speu province. But once again, collateral damage from the incident was minimal—police said a wall skirting the property had only received “minor damage.”
In all three incidents, no one was injured, and the timing of the events—both explosions occurred at night—seemed to suggest there was never supposed to be a target. Yet, these events were used this week by the Interior Ministry to explain to more than 40 embassies, as well as several NGOs, that the opposition CNRP could implement a plan to topple the government should it go ahead with nationwide demonstrations on September 7.
On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry’s Secretariat of Permanent Command for Election Security sent a package of documents and DVDs that included speeches made by opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha prior to the election calling for protests should the CNRP lose. It documented the two explosions and the grenades that were found and also included an open letter sent by Sourn Serey Ratha, the leader of the Khmer People’s Power Movement (KPPM), to the military and police forces, urging them to turn their weapons against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Indeed, memories of the 1998 post-election period are still fresh in the minds of many. Those elections were followed by violent protests from pro-opposition supporters and Mr. Hun Sen even claimed in September of that year that he was the target of a roadside bomb in Siem Reap City. As the prime minister and new parliamentary members were on their way to convene the country’s National Assembly, a B40 rocket exploded next to their motorcade.
But rights workers and analysts say that the most recent warnings of an opposition-backed coup are a sign of an increasingly paranoid government and a blatant threat to scare the population away from holding demonstrations.
“Although irrational behavior may play a role in post-election politics, the level of decision-making involved in these allegations about the CNRP indicates that they may be part of a CPP strategy, decided at the top level, to stoke fear among the population,” said Nicolas Agostini, who used to work as a legal adviser on land rights for Adhoc and is currently a delegate to the U.N. for the International Federation for Human Rights in Geneva.
“The power base of the CPP is still, to a large extent, the countryside and the older generation, who have access to less information, and are more likely to be afraid of instability than CNRP supporters, who are younger, more urban and more educated,” he said in an email.
These members of society, he explained, would be more likely to remember incidents such as factional fighting in 1997 and would, therefore, be more likely to “reject political strategies that are based on violence.”
David Chandler, an American historian who has written extensively on modern Cambodia, said that the documents sent by the government to embassies and NGOs were a sign that the ruling party is fearful of street protesters voicing their discontent about the country’s election results.
“They are very confused. They don’t want that demonstration to take place in September…so they are trying to scare people away from demonstrating in the streets,” he said.
Still, while a repeat of 1998—when security forces violently broke up pro-opposition demonstrators following that year’s national election—is unlikely, violence is not out of the question if mass demonstrations occur.
“It is quite possible that some disgruntled CNRP supporter could let off a grenade or something because they are annoyed with the election results,” Mr. Chandler said, adding that an attempt to topple the government was, however, unlikely due to the opposition’s lack of firearms.
Mr. Chandler said that the CNRP actually stood to gain very little from holding demonstrations and that the opposition would be better off building upon its huge gains in popularity inside the National Assembly.
“It’s the only rational solution,” he said. “They can’t go into the woods blindly as they’re going to get punished for that. The best position is to go to the National Assembly and make arguments and speeches on matters like corruption. Hun Sen does not know what to do with that. They would have a lot more success,” he said.
A senior diplomat in Cambodia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the documents sent by the government could also be a tactical ploy by the CPP to encourage foreign embassies to persuade the opposition that mass demonstrations are not the best way to resolve the current political impasse.
Whatever the reasoning, the CPP has long used “terrorist” groups and acts of violence to tarnish the opposition’s reputation. It was only in May that the National Police posted pictures of opposition lawmaker Son Chhay alongside Mr. Serey Ratha, who has repeatedly talked about toppling the government.
Mr. Chandler said such tactics were age-old in Cambodia and were used by previous regimes in the country.
“Organized Khmers when they act sensibly always act in the interests of the ruling party,” he said. “You want to be on the winning side. Here, they’re saying ‘these can’t be real Cambodians,’” he said. “Real Cambodians are supporters of the CPP, real Cambodians are supporters of the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk, whatever it might be. Real Cambodians support the guys in charge.”
But it is unlikely that such tactics would work on a more educated, young and aware population. “I think the CPP got caught with a rather archaic modus operandi and they now have to change that,” Mr. Chandler said.
Yung Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace, a local organization that advocates for democracy and human rights, said the likelihood of violence if demonstrations go ahead is minimal.
“According to what the opposition declares, they say they will only have a peaceful demonstration. They just want to have a resolution. They are not against the government and do not want to throw out the government,” he said.
Mr. Kim Eng said that the CNRP had every right to hold demonstrations if that is what the party’s supporters felt was necessary and that the links made between the KPPM and the post-election explosions were far-fetched.
“I think in Cambodia, political parties do not want to be linked with Sourn Serey Ratha and I have heard that the CNRP declared they are not linked with him. I don’t think it is realistic,” he said. “I don’t know what information they [the CPP] have, but they should see the reality.”
But the government is convinced that nationwide demonstrations could spell disaster. Though officials at the Ministry of Interior either declined to comment or could not be reached on Friday, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the rhetoric of “change” coming from the CNRP was cause for concern.
“The CNRP have burned two cars and there have been a number of cases,” Mr. Siphan said, referring to a riot that took place outside a polling station on election day after voters felt their voting rights had been jeopardized and then set ablaze two military police cars. “I feel that the leaders’ rhetoric is just to incite the people and the game they play is kind of political terrorism,” he added.
Mr. Siphan also pointed to the risk attached to the CNRP’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, employed most vehemently in the run-up to the election. Though the opposition has reiterated on several occasions it is not promoting xenophobia and does not hold racist views against ethnic Vietnamese people, Mr. Siphan said mass demonstrations could lead to the Vietnamese being killed in the streets.
“Racism against Vietnamese could bring about ethnic cleansing. Something could happen like this—we have learned from that in 1970s…. Thousands of Vietnamese were killed. And then the Khmer Rouge came in and executed the Vietnamese. What’s going on if that happens in the country?” he asked.
Mr. Agostini at the International Federation for Human Rights said that violence, if it occurs, could be the fault of both sides.
“It is certainly worrying because resorting to violence, or, at least, threats of violence, still appears a legitimate political strategy for the CPP. But it is also worrying that ethnic hatred—mostly directed against the Vietnamese—still appears as a legitimate political strategy for the opposition,” he said.