Cambodia's Defense Minister Tea Banh speaks at the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region's security officials, in Beijing, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015.
Cambodia's Defense Minister Tea Banh speaks at the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region's security officials, in Beijing, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015.

PHNOM PENH - Defense Minister Tea Banh says Cambodian soldiers should have the right to support demonstrations.

Speaking at the airport as he waited for Prime Minister Hun Sen to arrive from an official visit to France, Tea Banh said his troops have a right to “express their opinion.”

His statements followed violent anti-opposition protests Monday, during which two opposition lawmakers were pulled from their vehicles and severely beaten outside parliament.

“It’s not wrong for them to voice their support,” Tea Banh said.  “Now they support it, so they didn’t commit any wrongdoing.  It’s their right to express opinions, meaning they didn’t commit any violence.  This is their right because all the military are the same human beings, as general people, who can be ill and hungry and all the feeling like other people do.  They are not different form people in general.”

Attack condemned

Human Rights Watch has condemned the attacks, following the anti-opposition demonstration on Monday, saying that witnesses identified members of the military, police and para-police amid the “protesters.”  But military members have not been directly linked to the beating of the opposition lawmakers.

FILE - Kem Sokha, center, speaks to reporters outs
FILE - Cambodia's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Deputy President and National Assembly Deputy President Kem Sokha, center, speaks to reporters outside the Phnom Penh Municipality Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 8, 2015.

About 1,000 people had gathered at the National Assembly to call for the ouster of Cambodia National Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha from parliament. Many had dispersed before the attacks on lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamreoun, who suffered broken bones and lacerations.

Offering a conflicting view to Tea Banh’s, Hing Bun Heang, commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, said military personnel do not take part in demonstrations.

“The army is under the command of deputy prime minister and the minister of the Ministry of National Defense and has a duty to defend the nation and protect the social security or the people,” he said.  “They won’t defend demonstration.  Don’t imagine that.”

Meanwhile, in a speech posted on Hun Sen’s Facebook page Wednesday, the prime minister condemned the attacks against the opposition members.  He said the authorities will find the perpetrators and bring them to trial, even if they are members of his Cambodian People’s Party.

Pro-ruling party demonstrators stage a protest ral
Pro-ruling party demonstrators stage a protest rally in front of National Assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.

But he said Monday’s protest could be seen as a “side-effect” of protests by pro-opposition supporters, including those staged against him while he was in Paris.

“We will not tolerate or forgive perpetrators, regardless whom they are,” he said.  “Whether they are CPP supporters, opposition supporters, anyone who commits such disgraceful deeds, they should be arrested and punished.”

Hun Sen claims the protest was called off at 11 am, but the attacks occurred after noon.  “There were no remaining protesters.”

An investigation is underway, he said, urging witnesses to come forward.  And he said the National Assembly should pay for the medical bills and damage to the lawmakers’ vehicles.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.