Information Minister Fears Repeat of 2003 Riots

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Monday that the deployment last week of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and soldiers is necessary to prevent an outbreak of post-election violence akin to the anti-Thai riots that gripped Phnom Penh more than 10 years ago.

Speaking to reporters at the Information Ministry, Mr. Kanharith said the government wants to avoid a scenario similar to the “bitter experience” of the January 29, 2003, anti-Thai riots during which a mob went on a six-hour-long, $56-million-dollar rampage and burned down the Thai Embassy and a dozen Thai businesses.

“We are used to experiencing a lot of scares, so the Royal government is trying its best in terms of prevention,” Mr. Kanharith told reporters in an interview that was also broadcast on the state-owned channel Television Kampuchea.

“But if the Royal government doesn’t prepare measures, we will face the same incident like the burning down of the Thai Embassy in 2000,” he said, providing an erroneous date for the riots.

The opposition CNRP—which like the CPP claims to have won last month’s election—has threatened mass demonstrations if there is no investigation into alleged irregularities at the polls.

“If anybody wants to make a demonstration, those who lead the demonstration shall be responsible before the law if there are problems,” Mr. Kan­harith said.

The anti-Thai riots in 2003 erupted following unsubstantiated reports that a popular Thai television actress and singer, Kop Supwakun Khunying, claimed that Angkor Wat in fact belonged to Thailand.

Prime Minister Hun Sen quickly lashed out, saying that the life of the actress was “not even equal to a patch of grass around Ang­kor Wat,” and demanded that the popular television series she starred in be immediately pulled from Cambodian TV.

Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks were followed by riots, which resulted in the gutting of the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, while the TV5 television station was also set alight. The Thai Embassy was destroyed in the fire and then-Ambassador Chathawed Chartsuwan jumped over a fence and escaped by boat. It took several hours before law enforcement officers arrived on the scene to quell the violence.

Both before and after the July 28 national election, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly warned of violence. Speaking on August 2 during a two-hour address to villagers in Kandal province, he said that any demonstrations against the outcome of the election would be met by pro-result rallies on behalf of his CPP, and that chaos in the streets would likely ensue and force small businesses to close down.

While the CNRP says it only intends to hold peaceful demonstrations as a last resort if the ruling CPP and National Election Committee (NEC) do not properly investigate electoral irregularities, armored personnel carriers were spotted last week being deployed in several locations around Phnom Penh.

Speaking Monday at a press conference in the aftermath of the release of official preliminary election results from the NEC, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha appealed to the government to stop the military buildup.

“We would like the government to stop moving the armed forces around,” he told reporters.

The results released by the NEC on Monday gave a clear victory to the CPP, though the opposition denounced the results due to the perceived partiality of the NEC toward the ruling CPP.

“By making this announcement, the NEC is completely res­ponsible for any uprisings or demonstrations that lead to political unrest,” Mr. Sokha said.

A letter Monday disseminated by the Permanent Command Security Committee for the Election—which is headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng—called on people to remain calm after the CNRP “unfortunately and extremely regretfully” spoke of holding demonstrations.

“[T]he Permanent Command Security Committee for the Elec­tion acknowledges that it is the political right of compatriots in participating in election-related demonstrations,” it says.

“However, please compatriots…don’t harm security, order, social safety and participate in a peaceful and good order manner to protect our harmony for all and to express the political maturity of Cambodians for the dignity and honor of the Kingdom of Cambodia on the international stage,” it continues, adding that people should not bring weapons with them to demonstrations.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann reiterated the party’s stance Monday that any rallies would be nonviolent.

“If we have the demonstrations, they will be peaceful. We express our opinions and our demand for justice to ask the NEC and other stakeholders to address the irregularities before making the announcement of the outcome of the election. We seek a peaceful solution. If anything happens during a demonstration, it is not our responsibility, but that of the Ministry of Interior.”

He said he believes it is possible that CNRP demonstrations could be infiltrated by pro-CPP troublemakers who would try to instigate violence in order to make the opposition look bad, but said supporters are largely undeterred and are ready to demonstrate if the call is made.

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