Dozens of trucks filled with masked and heavily armed soldiers crept for hours along the road in front of the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters on Monday night, a show of military muscle after the opposition announced it was planning a mass demonstration.
The deployment came just after Prime Minister Hun Sen penned a strongly worded threat on Facebook to rid the country of forces that “destroy social order.”
“I order all competent forces to be ready to get rid of all illegal activities in order to protect the happiness of the people, no matter the cost,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote.
“Please, all ladies and gentlemen, don’t be addicted to demonstrations,” he added, going on to compare suppressing a demonstration to killing a snake. “Hit the snake, hit it right on the head first. If you don’t believe it, let’s try.”
The premier said his message was not merely a threat.
“It is more serious than a threat,” he wrote. “It is an order to ensure all government forces are ready to get rid of all forces that are acting to destroy national security and I have the right to say it like this because it is the authority of the prime minister.”
About two hours after the message was posted, between 30 and 40 military trucks, including those belonging to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, began driving slowly past the opposition headquarters on National Road 2, while speedboats mounted with machine guns passed the back of the building on the Tonle Bassac river, witnesses said.
“The trucks with armed and masked soldiers arrived at 10:20 p.m and at about 1:30 a.m they parked in front of the CNRP for more than half an hour,” said Suong Neakpoan, 26, a member of a CNRP-aligned student group who was present at the scene.
“They shined an LED flashlight into the CNRP headquarters and warned the people to stop taking photographs of them,” he added.
No attempt was made to arrest deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has been ensconced in the headquarters since late May, and was sentenced last week to five months in prison for refusing to appear in court over a case widely believed to be politically motivated.
The trucks left by about 2 a.m., while the speedboats cleared around sunrise, Mr. Neakpoan said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat said the forces were sent to the CNRP headquarters on the direct orders of the premier.
“Our purpose is to crack down on any illegal demonstration of the CNRP, to protect the safety of the people and social stability because the behavior of CNRP, whose declared plan to hold demonstrations is illegal,” General Sucheat said.
“Our forces will implement the order of Samdech Prime Minister. He gave an absolute order to prevent illegal demonstrations,” he said. “If they dare to hold demonstrations we will crack down absolutely.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is currently is self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid jail, said the CNRP would not back down.
“We will definitely make use of our fundamental right as enshrined in the Kingdom’s constitution: the right to organize peaceful protest to express our legitimate grievances,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email.
The government’s threats pointed to a deep paranoia, he said.
“By [being] willing to suppress this fundamental right of ours, Hun Sen actually shows how weak his regime is. Any regime that is afraid of its own people to this extent, is approaching its end,” he said.
“We are not impressed by last night’s show of force, a force completely cut off from the people. Just another cheap act of intimidation on the part of a desperate autocratic leader.”
(Additional reporting by George Wright and Ouch Sony)