Prime Minister Hun Sen – whose government has exiled one opposition leader, jailed another and moved to dissolve the only party capable of competing with the ruling CPP in next year’s national election – yesterday obliquely urged the United States not to “destroy democracy” in Cambodia.
Led by the prime minister, Cambodian People’s Party, government and armed forces officials have consistently accused the US of fomenting a “colour revolution” in the country over the past two months. The accusations followed the September arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha, who has been charged with “treason” for claiming he received the country’s help in planning political strategies.
Court documents issued on Tuesday show that Sokha will be questioned by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Ky Rithy on November 24 at the Tbong Khmum prison, where he is currently detained, his lawyers said yesterday.
Speaking to garment workers yesterday, Hun Sen asked his audience to disregard newspaper reports that there was a political crisis in the country, saying he had prevented the US and “political rebels” from destroying peace, human rights and democracy.
Without mentioning the US by name, the premier referred to a country that “claims to be democratic”, but “came to kill millions of Khmers” and “pretend[s] to love Khmers”.
“We will not let anyone destroy Cambodia under the influence of foreigners or through the wrong actions that violate the law,” he said. “We cannot just want to survive and have freedom under your influence.”
He jumped to the upcoming Senate and national elections slated for next year, saying the US’s efforts were “killing” multiparty democracy and the conduct of elections in the country.
“If you react in a way to kill multi-party democracy, ban the elections, destroy the 2018 elections, you will be making a mistake and you will have remorse like in the past,” he said.
The premier’s remarks were echoed in Kampong Speu by Defence Minister Tea Banh who said the US’s “unreasonable” reaction to the current crisis impacted Cambodian democracy and independence.
The US Embassy did not directly respond to the premier’s allegations yesterday, but pointed to a quote in a statement from Ambassador William Heidt from September 12 after a meeting with local journalists.
“And yes, we have helped strengthen Cambodia’s democracy. Some government officials have criticized this part of our program recently, but we are proud of our work to improve governance and help leaders respond to their constituents,” Heidt said in the statement, in which he also called for Sokha’s release.
But CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday took umbrage with such calls, saying demanding the release of Sokha constituted an act against the country’s laws and support for a suspected traitor.
“First, [they] want us to drop all the legal measures against the perpetrator, and this is an act of destroying democracy,” he said.
However, the calls for Sokha’s release were renewed yesterday by 41 CNRP lawmakers, most of whom are currently overseas due to fears of intimidation and arrest.
They again asked for the immediate release of Sokha, reaffirmed their support for the party’s senior leadership and asked party officials to not jump ship to the ruling party, as Hun Sen has urged in recent days.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the premier was an “experienced practitioner of the Big Lie” game, hoping that the Cambodian people would believe his allegations if he repeated them consistently.
“In Hun Sen la-la land, black is white because he says it is – so of course he’s the one defending rights and democracy while it’s the US, with a long record of democracy promotion and human rights engagement in Cambodia, that is leading the country into dictatorship,” he said via email.
Political commentator Meas Nee said it would be better for the prime minister and his government to examine their own role in the crackdown on the CNRP rather than seek to pin the blame elsewhere.
“I would like to appeal to the government to accept its weaknesses, which have made three million people unhappy and not vote for the government,” he said, referring to the voters who supported the CNRP in 2013.
Additional Reporting by Niem Chheng and Ananth Baliga