Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday vowed to remain in power for another decade, a day after a court charged the head of the country’s opposition party with treason for allegedly trying to topple the government.
Speaking to around 10,000 garment industry workers at a factory in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen, 65, said he would run for two more terms as prime minister to defend the stability of the nation before considering whether to step aside.
“Earlier I had a mixed feeling about when I should stop being the prime minister,” said the strongman, who has led Cambodia for 32 years.
“But thanks to the recent developments in connection with the treacherous activities of the Cambodian who has been arrested … I have decided to continue for at least another 10 years,” he added.
“May I ask foreigners not to get jealous with me? I am the longest-serving prime minister in the world.”
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won commune elections held on June 4, but the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the CPP’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for general elections scheduled for July 2018.
In recent weeks, the government has launched a crackdown against the independent media, NGOs, and the political opposition, drawing global condemnation for what is widely seen as a bid to stifle dissent ahead of next year’s ballot.
CNRP chief Kem Sokha was arrested over the weekend in Phnom Penh after government-aligned media outlet Fresh News released a heavily edited video from Australia-based Cambodian Broadcasting Network (CBN) it said showed the opposition leader was working with the United States to unseat Hun Sen.
On Tuesday, a Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor formally charged Kem Sokha with conspiring with a foreign power to “foment hostilities or acts of aggression against Cambodia,” in accordance with Article 443 of the country’s Criminal Code. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
The “Seiha” Facebook account, which regularly leaks documents attacking the opposition, recently released a list of people it said had acted with Kem Sokha and would be taken into custody, including CNRP deputy president Pol Ham; lawmakers Yem Ponhearith, Ou Chanrith, and Son Chhay; and Kem Sokha’s two daughters.
The U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations have issued statements expressing grave concerns over the arrest, although a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing—one of Hun Sen’s closest allies in the region—“supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability,” when asked about Kem Sokha at a recent press briefing.
Cambodia’s government has said it acted in defense of national interests, and in a statement Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that its senior minister Prak Sokhorn had briefed foreign diplomats on Kem Sokha’s arrest the day he was taken into custody, emphasizing that “how [the CNRP’s] strategy [to gain power] is built and who is behind it” was what constituted “an offence.”
Prak Sokhorn claimed that the video showed Kem Sokha had been conspiring with the U.S. since 1993 to overthrow Hun Sen and told ambassadors that the opposition leader’s video statement was deemed in flagrante delicto, allowing police to arrest him despite his parliamentary immunity.
The senior minister also reminded the diplomatic corps about “the respect for independence, sovereignty, neutrality, Cambodian laws and the non-interference in internal affairs of Cambodia,” and urged their countries to “let our people decide freely on who to lead them.”
Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice also defended the arrest in a statement Wednesday, and called on opposition party members to refrain from “misleading the public” by saying the act was in violation of the law.
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency quoted Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan as saying that the government could dissolve the CNRP if it does not move to appoint a new president, after the party said there were no plans to replace Kem Sokha.
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang had told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that in view of Cambodia’s “deteriorating situation, it makes no difference who assumes the position of president of the party, as the election cannot be free and fair,” and suggested the opposition would boycott next year’s ballot “unless the political situation returns to normality.”
Phay Siphan responded by telling Reuters “they have to appoint an acting president,” adding that “if they don’t comply with the law, they will not exist and have no right to political activity … It’s their choice, not my choice.”
Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak was also cited by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that the CNRP would be dissolved if its members continue to support Kem Sokha, and that once the party was disbanded, all of its lawmakers and elected officials would lose their positions.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy resigned in February in order to preserve the party in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, among other changes. He has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated.
Amid the condemnation over Kem Sokha’s arrest, around 100 Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans gathered in Lowell, Massachusetts Tuesday to demand the opposition leader’s release and the restoration of democracy and human rights to Cambodia.
A group of Cambodian-Americans are planning to stage a similar protest in Washington on Sept. 15, while members of the Cambodian diaspora in Australia, Canada, and France will also stage demonstrations over the next two weekends.
Since Aug. 22, Cambodia’s government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and forced the closure of the English language Cambodia Daily newspaper after giving it one month to pay an alleged U.S. $6.3 million in back taxes.
Despite the Cambodia Daily’s decision to close on Monday, the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s General Department of Taxation has said the paper will still be held accountable for its debt, and department chief Kong Vibol ordered the country’s immigration officials to bar its owners, Deborah Krisher-Steele and Douglas Eric Steele, from leaving the country.
On Wednesday, deputy prosecutor Ly Sophanna of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced he had received lawsuits filed by the General Department of Taxation against Krisher-Steele, Steele, and Krisher-Steele’s father, Bernard Krisher, as managers of the Cambodia Daily’s parent company, Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. Ltd. Two separate defamation lawsuits were also filed against Krisher-Steele.
In addition to the tax debt, the General Department of Taxation is demanding 800 million riels (U.S. $200,000) in compensation for tax evasion and obstruction of the implementation of Cambodia’s tax law.
Reported by Sereyvuth Oung and Neang Ieng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.