In the midst of a national inquiry into the injury of protestors during a land protest in Preah Sihanouk province last month, Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday called on provincial authorities to avoid deploying soldiers to crack down on protesters.
“Regarding the incidents that occurred in Kratie and Preah Sihanouk provinces, you were tasked with managing whole provinces, but you know nothing about laws,” Mr Kheng said during an annual meet with hundreds of government officials. “Other provinces, be careful – do not follow this, do not use soldiers during crackdowns.”
“Such as in Preah Sihanouk days ago, when provincial authorities went to address a land problem. You are law enforcers and administrators so you must know,” he added. “Deploying police and military police is your right, but you incorrectly used soldiers – you cannot use soldiers to implement a court verdict.”
Last month, a clash broke out in Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nob district as provincial authorities were measuring disputed land after a court prosecutor was instructed to carry out a Supreme Court decision, which led protestors to throw stones and petrol bombs at security forces.
An investigation into the clash is now being handled by a team of National Military Police officers, who are currently tracing bullet trajectories in order to determine who fired the shots that injured two people.
Provincial authorities said at the time that police and the military were deployed in order to intervene in the protest before it became violent.
Last year in Kratie province, two villagers were shot and injured during a clash with security forces over a land dispute with the Memot Rubber Plantation Company.
Provincial authorities deployed hundreds of provincial and military police officers in order to remove ten houses built on company land.
Mr Kheng said provincial authorities should focus on bringing protestors to the table, instead of direct confrontation.
“If there is tension, the law allows us to consider this through dialogue, but you went there angry,” he said. “If you want to do something, please think about it carefully.”
“Law enforcement officials are police, military police and prosecutors, if you are not implementing [a court verdict] then it’s wrong,” he added. “It is not necessary to use soldiers – I’ve said this many times, why do I need to say this again?”
Mr Kheng cited an example of having to intervene in Kampong Thom province during a crackdown on Prey Leng community activists.
“There were Prey Leng community people who wanted to carry out activities and they [the provincial government] wanted to use force, but I said do not do this, please compromise and negotiate with the people because we are the same people,” he said. “They had the intention to protect forests and we were willing to do so also.”
“You have the power; don’t just use guns, you must find a solution by using the art of solving problems. If you do choose to act against demonstrators, please know the law and make sure that your officials do, too,” Mr Kheng added. “I’m not saying you can use your power to shoot people who violate the law. I’m saying if you protect those who violate the law then you are not a public official, you are just serving for the benefit of others. This is not justice, please avoid this.”
Additionally, Mr Kheng called on the Interior Ministry to help improve the image of security forces.
“I think our main challenge is to provide public service to people,” he said. “We’ve done reforms, but we need more reforms and officials need to work harder to provide public services.”
Or Saroeun, spokesman for the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Hall, yesterday said he acknowledged that the deployment of soldiers during the protest was a mistake, noting that he will follow Mr Kheng’s instructions.
“It is an order from a senior official and we will respect it,” Mr Saroeun said. “We made a mistake by deploying soldiers.”
“Previously, we were used to bringing joint security forces in order to ensure public order,” he added.
Kratie Governor Var Thorn could not be reach for comment yesterday.
San Chey, director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, yesterday said there are two major problems with law enforcement.
“There are two reasons why, the first is that members of the armed forces do not understand laws,” Mr Chey said. “The second is national-level authorities setting bad examples for sub-national level authorities.”