Deputy National Police Commissioner Chhay Sinarith yesterday accused local and international organisations of conspiring with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to foment rebellion. He warned that conditions were ripe for a so-called colour revolution in the coming months.
Speaking at an annual meeting of internal security forces in Phnom Penh yesterday, Sinarith, who is also a member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s central committee, called on police officers to be vigilant against NGOs and unions he said were opposing the government and laying the seeds in communities to bring about a revolution.
“Some international organisations abroad, and some local non-government organisations that receive support from them, they take advantage with actions that aim to topple the government,” he said, adding that his internal security department had established five working groups to monitor destabilising activities.
The deputy commissioner, who was recently promoted to the rank of four-star general by the Ministry of Interior, went on to say that 60 unnamed NGOs had written opposition strategy for a range of issues including human rights and land reform.
Sinarith likened the post-2013 election demonstrations – which gained momentum along with concurrent garment worker protests that were quashed when five protesters were shot dead by security forces – to an attempt at a “colour revolution”. Independent unions, he said, were part of the movement to create “turmoil” and derail the government.
“I think tension in society resulting in turmoil can happen again, but bigger than in 2015, because 2016 is the year we are heading into commune elections and the general election is in 2018,” he warned.
The government has been particularly outspoken in its condemnation of colour revolutions – mostly non-violent protest movements that have unseated governments in the former Soviet sphere and Middle East.
High-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have repeatedly called for increased vigilance despite no such movement ever taking root in the Kingdom, and prominent NGOs described Sinarith’s remarks yesterday as “far-fetched” and “paranoid”.
“Clearly, the government is feeling threatened by the attention being paid to Cambodia’s widespread human rights violations,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, adding that rights organisations like CCHR were politically neutral.
“We have no interest in the name of the party in power – we are interested only in achieving universal respect for the human rights of all Cambodians,” she said.
Pointing to the case of Kong Raiya, who was jailed this week for calling for a “colour revolution” on Facebook, as well as the ongoing use of the term by the government, Sopheap said that the rhetoric was “deeply concerning” given that the military and the courts have indicated they will suppress anyone branded a “colour revolutionary”.
Similarly, Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said his organisation was not aware of any NGO-backed plot to overthrow the government.
“Through engagement with our alliances of both national and international NGOs, our common aim and focus has always been to help all political parties resolve their disputes peacefully and avoid all forms of violence and revolution,” he said in an emailed statement.
When it comes to garment worker protests, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said workers were solely focused on their living conditions and demands for a decent wage.
“We just want the workers to live decently and good conditions,” he said. “We have nothing to do with any colour revolution.”
For their part, the opposition refused to be drawn into the issue yesterday.
“He is talking nonsense,” said the CNRP’s deputy public affairs head, Kem Monovithya, before declining to comment further.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, described the ongoing rhetoric from Cambodia’s security forces as “bogus justifications” for further crackdowns, which, he said, did not bode well for future elections.
“The 2013 election was much less violent than previous elections, so we’re concerned that [yesterday’s police] briefing indicates the CPP’s takeaway from 2013 is the politics of hope didn’t work and now it’s time to return to the politics of fear,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to repudiate Sinarith’s comments yesterday, saying that some unnamed NGOs were in “opposition” to the government, and that the state “has an obligation to maintain public order and national security as described in the constitution”.
Political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank Ou Virak said the government would be better served listening to people’s needs, like calls for judicial reform and resolving land-grabbing issues, rather than a paranoid obsession with regime change.
“That paranoia, if anything, is actually going to galvanise more frustrations,” he said.