With the spectre of potential garment-sector unrest on the horizon and emboldened communities protesting land disputes, the National Police is buying what appear to be the authorities’ first water-cannon trucks designed specifically to control demonstrations.
And despite widespread concerns over the use of excessive force by security forces over the past year, they are making no effort to hide it.
In advertisements in yesterday’s Post and Post Khmer newspapers, the Ministry of Interior announced public bidding for two top-of-the-line Tata Daweoo water-cannon trucks “to be used against demonstration”.
The DWC model trucks can carry up to 10,000 litres of water and can shoot at a range of 50 metres.
“The said trucks are manufactured in Korea in 2014, with 100% quality, to be provided to national police forces for use in security, safety and social order protection operation,” the notice continues.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for further details despite repeated calls.
Authorities have used water cannons a handful of times over the past 18 months, but they have been mounted on traditional fire trucks.
In May last year, a woman was knocked unconscious after a water cannon was used on land-rights protesters who had blocked Monivong Boulevard.
It was also deployed when political demonstrators clashed with police along the riverside in September last year and during a garment worker riot in Stung Meanchey in November that saw one woman killed after police opened fire.
Other procurement notices put out from the MOI yesterday request 25 Nissan pickup trucks for the same “social order” purposes. The ministry is also procuring more shields, electric batons and protective clothing for police.
An official at the MOI’s procurement office who would not give his name said that the water cannon would be used “against demonstrators who have incited” others.
“It’s an issue for police to protect security and keep public order for the nation.”
Phnom Penh deputy police chief Chuon Narin said the capital’s police had not specifically requested the new gear.
“In Phnom Penh, as of now, we have enough [equipment],” he said, adding, however, that he supported their purchase.
“I think even in a developed country, their governments must have this equipment. So why must a developing country like us not have it? It’s for public order.”
But Ramana Sorn, freedom of expression project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the purchase of water cannon trucks represented a “concerning trend”.
Cambodia pledged before the UN Human Rights Council in January that it would “ensure that people could demonstrate safely without fear or intimidation” and accepted a number of recommendations on the right to freedom of assembly, she said in an email.
“This recent case is truly against the spirit of those recommendations,” she said. “Water cannons are dangerous and the authorities’ lack of control over the use of force by law enforcement makes water cannons even more dangerous.”
While CCHR believes water cannons should “never be used by law enforcement”, the group declined to discuss other methods of crowd control it would recommend in violent protest situations.
John Muller, managing director of Global Security Solutions, a Phnom Penh-based private security firm, said that despite their risks, water cannons were a far better option than firing even rubber bullets.
“Most other countries still feel water-cannon technology is most suitable in terms of achieving the desired results and minimising injury,” he said.
But Nay Vanda, deputy head of human rights and legal aid at watchdog Adhoc, said the purchase was “ridiculous”.
”It depends on how you use it, but I don’t think they demand two big cannons to spray the water weakly.”