Police arrest a supporter of the Cambodia National Rescue party during a protest in Phnom Penh last week © EPA
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Cambodia is beefing up its feared Chinese-backed prime ministerial bodyguard force as a jail term imposed on an opposition leader threatens to trigger another political crisis in Beijing’s staunchest Southeast Asian ally. 

Authorities in Phnom Penh have warned they will crack down on a mass protest threatened by the Cambodia National Rescue party after Kem Sokha, its deputy chief, was sentenced in absentia last week to five months in prison for twice ignoring a court summons. 

Tensions have been growing for weeks in the small but strategically-situated Mekong region state, where soldiers, naval vessels and Chinese-made helicopters were deployed late last month near the opposition’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. Authorities have now warned they will not tolerate any opposition rally to denounce the Kem Sokha court ruling. 

“The government is not prepared to let it happen, absolutely not,” said Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Hun Sen, Cambodian prime minister of 31 years and Asia’s longest-ruling leader, on Monday. “We will protect law and order.” 

The opposition will call a demonstration if it continues to be rebuffed in public and private over its efforts to start talks on the political crisis, said Monovithya Kem, a Cambodia National Rescue party spokesperson and also Mr Kem Sokha’s daughter. 

“Our last resort is peaceful mass protest as it’s the only option if the other side keeps closing doors,” she said. 

The discord came as news emerged that about 350 troops are due to join the premier’s bodyguard unit, a 3,000-strong private army equipped with armoured personnel carriers, missile launchers and Chinese-made machine guns. The new recruits would replace retirees, said Mr Phay Siphan, who dismissed longstanding allegations that the unit was implicated in human rights abuses. 

The bodyguards have become a formidable force protecting Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has presented himself as the only figure capable of preventing the country returning to chaos. In May, a Cambodian court sentenced three members of the bodyguard unit to one year in prison each for assaulting two opposition parliamentarians whom they had dragged from their cars. 

The bodyguard unit formed a highly unusual “military-commercial alliance” in 2010 with Unite International, a company controlled by Fu Xianting, a well-connected Chinese tycoon who has big tourism interests in Cambodia. China has directed greater military and other aid to Cambodia, which has emerged as a crucial participant in quelling public criticism of Beijing’s maritime territorial ambitions by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

Mr Fu did not respond to a request for comment. He has previously denied that the concessions his businesses enjoy in Cambodia are linked to his deal with the bodyguard unit, which has received a series of donations from Unite, including 220 motorbikes in 2009. 

Mr Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s party denies it is intimidating the opposition ahead of unpredictable elections in 2018. The opposition had previously launched a year of on-off anti-government demonstrations over claims that the last elections in 2013 were rigged. 

But a deal to end that protest in exchange for political reforms unravelled last year, after authorities revived a criminal defamation conviction against Sam Rainsy, Cambodia National Rescue party leader, who was out of the country and has not returned. Mr Kem Sokha has been accused of procuring prostitutes, in a case he has denounced as politically motivated.

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