The potential for color to serve as a rallying point for a political insurrection has not been lost on Prime Minister Hun Sen over the years, with the premier repeatedly inveighing against Eastern European-style “color revolutions.”
On Tuesday, however, he took this aversion a step further by announcing he would ban any future protests in which participants are all dressed in the same color.
“It does not matter what color you are—I told [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng and the other leaders not to care about the color—if you commit a wrong, arrest them all,” Mr. Hun Sen said at a university graduation in Phnom Penh.
Eight human rights officers and activists were detained for the act of wearing black on Monday after they sported the hue at a demonstration to mourn the jailing of five of their colleagues last month. Mr. Hun Sen said on Tuesday that the act of protesting in monochrome was a clear security threat.
“Please don’t use the right to expression to abuse others, because the government must keep peace and stability for the country for development,” he said, joking that the graduates clad in black robes were safe.
“Today, all are in black, but nobody is coming to arrest you,” he said.
His words followed warnings from other officials, with Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak saying Cambodia could become like war-torn Syria if such protests continued, and government spokesman Phay Siphan saying the wearing of black shirts “reminds people [of] 1975.”
Clad in black shirts and trousers, the communist Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh on April 17 that year. Mr. Hun Sen, a young Khmer Rouge soldier at the time, would have been among them had he not been injured.
Yet unlike the Khmer Rouge in 1975, those protesting in black shirts this week explicitly did not have the goal of overthrowing the government.
Instead, their goal was to protest for the release of four rights monitors and an election official jailed for allegedly bribing a woman with $204 to deny an affair with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Mr. Hun Sen’s sudden mistrust of black shirts was ironic.
“From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge—whose movement Hun Sen had served for many years starting in the early 1970s—forbade any clothes but those dyed in black,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email.
“What an irony that the Hun Sen government now arrests people just because they wear black clothes!”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, one of the few members of the royal family to regularly criticize the government as a prominent member of the CNRP, said the reaction to Monday’s black-clad protesters was farcical given that the gathering was peaceful.
“Some people have said the Khmer Rouge used to wear black shirts, but in the minds of the human rights activists and human rights organizations in Cambodia, who had the people who dressed in black, it is the color of mourning,” Prince Thomico said.
The prince said that for the CPP to interpret the wearing of black shirts as an act of potential revolution showed the party’s current level of paranoia.
“What happened on Monday just shows how afraid and how weak the CPP feels. They know that the people are against them, that the Cambodian people in the vast majority are against the CPP,” he said.
“So now even peaceful protests are forbidden, which is contrary to the law and to the Constitution,” Prince Thomico added. “The ones jeopardizing the peace and stability in Cambodia are the CPP.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said it was unfair to criticize Mr. Hun Sen for his activities under the Khmer Rouge, or for his subsequent crackdown on protesters in black.
“It’s wrong to say that, since it was a different society,” Mr. Eysan said. He defended Mr. Hun Sen’s revolutionary activities in black as being driven by the 1970 coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
“He wore black then because he entered the maquis upon the appeal made by Norodom Sihanouk to fight to topple the Khmer Republic regime of Marshal Lon Nol to rescue the country from foreign control,” he said, using a term for a resistance movement.
“He wore black not to serve the Khmer Rouge, but he was serving Norodom Sihanouk,” he added. “By experiencing the fight for the nation, we saw that Pol Pot sowed genocidal actions and killed millions.”
“That’s why [Mr. Hun Sen] gathered patriots to fight to rescue the country from the genocidal regime.”
Mr. Eysan said the civil society members who protested on Monday should learn from the mistake.
“We have a lot of experiences that a uniform of black pants and black shirts will bring disaster for the nation, so the NGOs should not have done this to bring fear and instability to the people,” he said.
Yet even in the post-civil war period, Mr. Hun Sen’s rule has in fact been marked by frequent social upheavals and state-sponsored violence, not least the 1997 factional fighting in which he ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh as the first prime minister.
The state has since regularly relied on violence to enforce its grip, most recently deploying military police to put an end to a nationwide strike of workers in the crucial garment industry in January 2014.
However, Mr. Eysan said the government could not afford to allow people to gather in public in the same color and threaten the general peace that Mr. Hun Sen has brought to Cambodia.
“From the experiences from Middle East and North Africa, we have seen there have been color revolutions that occurred, and it made whole nations fall into internal war,” Mr. Eysan said.
“We need to be careful.”