Military Police Should Stop Viewing Protesters as Enemies

National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha’s recent remarks that he learned from Adolf Hitler constitute a clear faux pas. As the German Ambassador to Cambodia put it, Hitler was the leader of the brutal Nazi regime. The gap between Hitler and Pol Pot is quite narrow —both relied on a ruthless police force whose goal was to “investigate and suppress all anti-state tendencies,” according to Robert Gellately, a leading historian of modern Europe. The Gestapo, the Nazis’ official secret police, played an essential role in perpetuating the Holocaust by identifying potential victims.

Yet what is more interesting is that totalitarian regimes rely heavily on a Manichean rhetoric to legitimize their rule. By designating an enemy, a political force can more easily strengthen its group and justify eventual drastic measures. In this case, General Sokha clearly sees the protesters as enemies and as threats to social order and security. Thus, the raison d’etat might help explain the killing of five unfortunate protesters last January and the lack of police accountability.

But as the main representative of the Cambodian military police, it might be a step too far to pay tribute to such a controversial figure barely two weeks after the anniversary of the Veng Sreng killings. Setting aside the appropriateness of such a comparison, Gen. Sokha’s comment also has the benefit of highlighting Cambodia’s tendency toward a police state, with widespread arrests, lightning-speed convictions, a lack of transparency in drafting the cybercrime laws, no accountability when it comes to police violence and so on.

But rather than increasing the size of the target on my back, it might be productive to consider protest management for future reference. The Occupy Movement at its height, between 2011 and 2012, is an interesting case study for crisis management in the sense that protests were widespread in the U.S., whereas police responses differed depending on the city.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank chose a rather diplomatic approach. He went up to demonstrators one by one, wearing his normal attire, without protective gear, and allowed them to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech, but also negotiated curfews and arrest modalities. There was no reported incident in Salt Lake City, and Burbank was later praised for his approach. What can be inferred from such an episode is that it is possible to consider alternative means of handling demonstrators. Active communication between police forces and protesters can help establish expectations and rules. Crisis management should be an inclusive process taking into consideration the well-being of protesters. While in everyday life, rules and regulations are more or less institutionalized—thus making daily interactions somewhat predictable—in times of crisis these rules are more volatile and less clear. That is why stakeholders should promote communication in order to establish foreseeability and reduce uncertainties and eventual incidents.

Such actions imply a radical shift in attitudes toward protest management. While I understand the need for heightened security measures at times, I do not think that parading heavily armed police officers in front of protestors—then shooting them afterwards—was the best idea, as this kind of tactic only exacerbates existing tensions and delegitimizes state authority. I do believe, however, that words can be more efficient in dealing with people than guns.

Samir Pheng is a developmental studies graduate from the Sciences Po Bordeaux.

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