With planned protests against last month’s contested national election results fast approaching, the opposition CNRP and police each held separate training events in Phnom Penh on Sunday, aimed at staving off the violence many fear may erupt.
The CNRP says it will start mass protests beginning Saturday unless the government agrees to an independent investigation of the July 28 vote, which preliminary results give to the ruling CPP but remain mired in reports of widespread irregularities.
Sunday’s two training events could not have been more different, however.
On Koh Pich, some 2,000 municipal police officers spent most of the morning running through carefully coordinated drills in strict formations. Police packing tear gas and gas masks and fully armored riot police wielding batons and shields all took part. They practiced maneuvers, deployed barricades and barbed wire and used water cannons mounted on several fire trucks.
Presiding over it all was municipal police chief Chuon Sovann, who afterward urged those thinking of joining Saturday’s protests to stay at home.
“If the demonstrators are non-violent there is no need for us to use weapons. But if there are opportunists among the demonstrators who use ammunition and weapons to attack our authorities it will be dangerous,” Mr. Sovann said.
“So at this point we appeal to the people not to join the demonstrations and leave the parties to solve the problem,” he said. “We have the ability to solve it. We have enough laws, the constitutional law and other laws to solve the problem.”
If the protests go ahead as planned, Mr. Sovann said it was up to the CNRP to keep them peaceful and echoed the government’s warning in recent weeks that any violence that comes of them would be the opposition party’s responsibility alone.
Mr. Sovann also sought to allay fears among the opposition that his officers might use excessive force in suppressing the protests or even instigate any violence.
“Our training is to prevent violence and to prevent activity in any place that is banned,” he said. “Our forces are equipped with shields, batons and helmets. It means this group is designed for order, not for fighting.”
More than 1,000 military police ran through crowd control drills during a training event at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium exactly two weeks ago. Before that, at least half a dozen gun-mounted armored personnel carriers and hundreds of soldiers were also redeployed to Phnom Penh in preparation for the protests but have so far remained out of sight.
The CNRP has been busy preparing for the protests as well. Their role-playing exercises at Freedom Park on Sunday afternoon, however, were a decidedly less orderly affair.
As about 500 opposition supporters took turns pretending to be protesters, unruly demonstrators and police, few could refrain from giggling and smiling through what looked more like a play fight than genuine training. At various times, they practiced isolating unruly participants, linking arms to resist pushy protesters and being pelted with empty water bottles.
Sok Noeun, who laughed his way through his role as a police officer, said he enjoyed the exercise but conceded that the real protests were sure to be a less jovial affair.
“The police are not as gentle as us,” he said. “It will be hard when it becomes real. Anger will be met with anger and the people and police might clash. People might get hit on the head and there could be blood.”
Oum Vanny, who assumed the role of demonstrator, agreed.
“In reality it will be harder, since the police can beat us up. But we won’t fight back,” she said. “We will sit down and plead with them.”
But CNRP officials and most supporters are not worried about an outright attack from police, so much as the prospect of the CPP planting operatives among the protesters to stir up trouble and justify a heavy-handed police response. To counter that, the CNRP plans to divide the protesters into groups of 10 to 20 people who will all know each other.
Tharoth, an English student and opposition supporter who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisal from authorities, said these groups would be able to spot any infiltrator.
“If we see them, we can arrest them and take them out of the group,” he said.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who watched the training, urged participants to keep their cool during the coming protests no matter what happened.
“Please control your temper and behave yourselves so that you respect the other people and the other people respect you,” he said, urging them to keep any weapons they might have at home.
“Control your behavior, your thoughts and be careful with your words,” added CNRP vice president Kem Sokha. “Because we are Khmer we have to have gentle expressions…we have to keep smiling.”
The particulars of the event appeared to be lost on many of the several hundred people who ringed the park and watched, however.
“This show is for people to see, but people can’t see, so people won’t know how to follow the example,” said one spectator, who declined to give his name.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, who also came to observe the event, agreed that most of the crowd likely had a hard time following the proceedings.
He appreciated the CNRP’s effort and the commitment to non-violence on display, but said the party would have to do a better job at its next training event on Wednesday.
“The training on the 4th must be better,” he said. “I hope next time they do better, but the commitment to non-violence is really there.”
The CNRP has said it has been receiving training on peaceful protest techniques “from NGOs,” but has declined to say which.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
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