Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out at the opposition on Monday as he refused to negotiate with the Cambodia National Rescue Party as long as the CNRP is threatening mass demonstrations against the government.
He told the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh on Monday that the CNRP needs to return to parliament and work with the Cambodian strongman and his supporters, instead of threatening to mob the streets with protestors.
“You can never threaten us with the demonstrations. Let me make it clear that it is not going to work that way,” he said. “Don’t even think about it. If I ever enter into such negotiations I will be nothing short of a dog.”
CNRP leaders are threatening to organize mass protests as part of their efforts to pressure Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in advance of the 2017 local and 2018 national elections, but CNRP’s spokesperson Yim Sovann says the demonstrations are a last resort.
“I believe no one from the CNRP or the ruling party wants the demonstrations,” he said. “What we want is the peaceful and normal political atmosphere for the elections in 2017 and 2018. Since everyone has the same wish, isn’t it a good idea to engage in a dialogue to find a common solution?”
‘Our right to retaliate?’
Hun Sen didn’t appear to be in the mood for discussions as he threatened to retaliate against any demonstrations.
“Let me challenge all of you to come out and [demonstrate] now. The sooner the better,” he said. “I will issue orders for counter demonstrations everywhere you start them. You enjoy the right to demonstrate. Why shouldn’t we reserve our right to retaliate?”
While Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have ruled the country for more than 30 years, the CPP suffered a big electoral setback in the 2013 elections.
The ruling CPP won 68 seats, while the CNRP won 55 seats. In losing 22 seats from the previous election, the CPP earned the fewest percentage of seats that it has held in the National Assembly since 1998.
The 2013 elections were dogged by accusations of fraud, and a new system put in place at the start of this year is part of a 2014 election reform deal between the CPP and the CNRP that ended almost a year of deadlock.
While politicians on both sides hailed a “culture of dialog” after the deal, that culture ended as Hun Sen’s government and the CPP began a long legal battle that has seen opposition lawmakers and government critics flee the country, get thrown in jail or go into hiding.
Opposition party lawmakers are once again avoiding National Assembly sessions as they attempt to pressure the government to return to the negotiating table.
Earlier this month embattled opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison for his failure to appear in legal cases related to his alleged affair with a young woman.
Kem Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh for months after his parliamentary immunity was lifted so that he could be charged.
In addition four employees of the human rights group ADHOC and a member of the National Election Commission (NEC) have been arrested in connection with Kem Sokha’s cases.
Kem Sokha is not the only CNRP leader facing court action
CNRP President Sam Rainsy was convicted in July of defaming National Assembly President Heng Samrin in a closed-door session that lasted less than an hour. Heng Samrin is also a senior leader in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad since he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in 2015 because of a warrant issued for his arrest in another defamation case in which he accused Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong of running a prison for the Khmer Rouge.
After Sam Rainsy left the country, the CNRP named Kem Sokha its acting president.
Opposition lawmakers Um Sam An and Hong Sok Hour have been imprisoned for critical comments about the government’s deal setting the border with Vietnam.
Kem Ley and the Boeung Kak Lake activists
In addition, popular government critic Kem Ley was murdered in July. While the government says a former soldier claimed he killed Kem Ley over a debt, it is a story many do not believe. Kem Ley’s wife and family have since fled Cambodia
On Monday, four prominent land activists were convicted and sentenced to six months each in prison for a protest they held five years ago.
Tep Vanny, Heng Mom, Bou Chhovy and Kong Chantha are all well known for protesting the eviction of residents from Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake community. They were convicted of insulting and obstructing civil servants.
Boeung Kak lake was filled so that it can be turned into a luxury commercial development. Investors in the venture reportedly have ties to Hun Sen’s family.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.