Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng warned on Sunday that the government would use the full force of the state to repress protests against the possible arrest of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has been provisionally charged with failing to heed a court summons.
Mr. Sam Heng’s threat came as the National Assembly is set to meet on Monday to decide whether to perform a controversial parliamentary maneuver to allow Mr. Sokha to be jailed in spite of his constitutional immunity from arrest as a lawmaker.
Speaking to about 300 people at the close of a seminar on state health care services at a restaurant in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, Mr. Sam Heng rebuffed threats from the CNRP and a major union leader that Mr. Sokha’s arrest would spark mass protests.
“Any attempts to provoke demonstrations or any attempts to incite workers to come out for demonstrations like in 2013…will be impossible. It will be completely not allowed,” Mr. Samheng said. “We will follow the law, and our means of force and state power will not be left out. They really will be used.”
The CNRP, which last led mass demonstrations with tens of thousands of people between September 2013 and January 2014 to protest alleged fraud at the last national election, has said it will again call supporters from the provinces if Mr. Sokha is jailed.
Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union, the oldest and one of the largest unions in the country, also threatened to call strikes if the CNRP vice president is arrested. The last time the CNRP and the unions joined forces, it shut down the garment industry.
The country’s roughly 600,000 garment workers stopped work and garment factories were closed as the CNRP’s campaign for a fresh election and the workers’ demand for higher minimum monthly salaries melded into a single protest movement in December 2013.
Both were repressed, starting with elite paratroopers beating and arresting union leaders during a protest on January 3, 2014. Military police shot dead at least five strikers and injured about 40 the next day, and the CNRP’s protest base in Phnom Penh was dismantled by plainclothes thugs on January 5.
This time, the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association has also said it would call its members to strike if Mr. Sokha were jailed.
Mr. Sokha was provisionally charged last week after twice failing to show up for questioning over a “prostitution” case that the courts and police have been aggressively pursuing against him since accusations emerged in March that he took a 25-year-old mistress.
The CNRP has claimed the case is politically motivated and meant only to ensnare Mr. Sokha in a scandal and provide a pretext for his prosecution as elections near in June 2017 and July 2018. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has already fled into exile after being hit with a two-year jail sentence for defamation.
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long said parliament’s permanent committee would meet this morning to decide whether to have lawmakers vote on a motion allowing Mr. Sokha to be jailed, even with his immunity from prosecution, which the CPP cannot remove without CNRP support.
“The permanent committee will consider Kem Sokha’s case based on the report from the prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The assembly will check and consider whether we should put that on the agenda or not,” Mr. Peng Long said. “The Assembly could allow the courts to continue their procedures, or postpone their procedures.”
The CNRP on Friday issued a statement saying that it would boycott the National Assembly amid the current political turmoil.
The Constitution says lawmakers cannot be arrested or prosecuted without the Assembly approving the removal of their immunity with a two-thirds majority. The CPP does not enjoy such a majority, but CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An was still jailed in April.
The CPP has latched onto a clause in the Constitution that allows for a lawmaker’s arrest if he or she is caught in the act of a crime. Yet the CNRP has pointed out that the Constitution, in such cases, still requires the Assembly to lift their immunity after the act.
The CPP has rejected this and said it merely needs to secure a simple majority to approve the continued prosecution of a lawmaker caught red-handed.
At the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Sunday morning, about 200 people turned out to support Mr. Sokha. CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang told reporters outside that arresting Mr. Sokha for not showing up to court would only be the latest political abuse of the legal system.
“They claim it is a red-handed crime, as he did not appear in court as a witness, but we already know that the law in Cambodia at the present time is interpreted by the powerful people,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
“If we look at other cases, do you see the court charging or convicting witnesses who don’t attend?” he said. “If they did that, there’d be many people put in jail, as a lot of witnesses did not appear following a court warrant, like at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.”
In October 2009, a tribunal judge called then-CPP President Chea Sim, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, then-Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, then-Finance Minister Keat Chhon, and CPP senators Ouk Bunchhoeun and Sim Ka to testify in court.
None of the six ever turned up and Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly slammed the judge’s decision.
Mr. Chhay Eang added that CNRP lawmakers would receive petitions on Monday collected by officials across the country calling for King Norodom Sihamoni’s intervention and deliver them to the Royal Palace.
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said no marches would be allowed.
“We heard about their plan to march to deliver the petitions as they have appealed, but it is illegal because, firstly, they did not ask for permission and, secondly, it’s against City Hall rules,” Mr. Chanyada said. “We will take action because they have no permission.”
The country’s Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest, and laws governing demonstrations say that people must simply notify authorities of their plans.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached on Sunday to comment on the status of Mr. Sokha’s case. Police appeared to try to arrest Mr. Sokha on Thursday but have left him alone since the provisional charges were laid against him on Friday. He is presently holed up in the CNRP’s headquarters in Meanchey district.
Mr. Sam Heng, the labor minister, said in his speech on Sunday that Mr. Mony was overstepping his reach as a union leader by threatening strikes over a legal matter unrelated to the garment industry.
“The court called [Mr. Sokha], and he did not agree to go one or two times. It has to be punished according to the law,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “So this case is not related to the benefits of the workers, and yet there is a union appealing to workers for demonstrations.”
“[We] need to think about what is the common target,” he said. “And elements that attempt to cause any instability, those parts will not be allowed to do whatever they want.”
Mr. Mony, whose brother founded the FTU together with Mr. Rainsy, said workers would be supporting Mr. Sokha out of a sense of solidarity, given the opposition’s longtime support of the union movement.
“What the minister, Ith Sam Heng, claims is wrong, because the workers have the right to demonstrate. When we ask him to intervene with the factories to pay the workers, when has he ever done work for them?” Mr. Mony said.
“The benefit to the workers would be to make the courts do what they desire,” he added.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declined to comment on whether he was concerned by the threats of force against any demonstrations that break out.
“We don’t want to make any comment at all. Just wait and see what happens,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom and Alex Willemyns)