Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday ordered police to arrest anyone who accuses the government of using “fake” maps and ceding national territory amid an ongoing political dispute over the demarcation of the Southeast Asian nation’s border with neighboring Vietnam.
During a three-hour televised speech, Hun Sen volunteered to step down if his government’s maps and a set of maps loaned to Cambodia by France last week to help resolve the dispute do not match.
“I have already decided to step down if the French maps and [the government] maps are different—I would volunteer to go to jail,” the prime minister said.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has accused the government of ceding land to Vietnam based on a set of maps that adhere to a 1985 agreement signed by the two countries during Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, and which the opposition has never recognized.
On Sept. 3, France delivered maps produced by its National Geographic Institute (IGN) prior to Cambodian independence in 1953 which, hours after receiving, Cambodian officials declared a match to the charts used by the government to demarcate the 1,228-kilometer (763-mile) border with Vietnam.
Hun Sen said Tuesday that the verification had settled the dispute and warned that anyone who criticizes the government maps would be arrested, without exception.
“I would like to reaffirm that I will not forgive anyone who continues to criticize the maps by saying they are fake and made by thieves,” he said.
“If anyone tries to disrupt my peace, I won’t allow them to have peace either … All law enforcement officers must arrest anyone who uses those words.”
CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s threat had undermined freedom of expression in Cambodia.
“At this stage, we can’t say how accurate the government maps are,” he said, noting that representatives from opposition political parties were not permitted to raise questions about the documents during last week’s verification process.
He urged the government to soften its stance, saying that it simply needs to provide proof that the maps are accurate.
Political commentator Kem Lei said Hun Sen’s threat would create more doubt surrounding the map issue and questioned his order.
“What law would he use to arrest people?” he asked.
Hun Sen’s statement follows the Aug. 15 arrest of opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) Senator Hong Sok Hour, who has been charged with treason for allegedly posting a phony section of the country’s border treaty with Vietnam on social media.
Late last month, Hun Sen said that the government would “prosecute” anyone who accused it of using a fake map.
Also on Tuesday, the Svay Rieng provincial court questioned four people over a June clash between Vietnamese and Cambodian villagers that broke out when senior CNRP members led an inspection of a disputed area of the border.
Soeurng Hum, one of the villagers called before the court, said he had been questioned about whether CNRP lawmakers Riel Khemarin and Um Sam An, and senior CNRP official Thach Setha, were responsible for inciting the violence.
He said that while he was injured in the clash, he did not wish to file a complaint against the CNRP officials.
Provincial deputy prosecutor Orng Ry said he had acted in the public interest when summoning the four villagers for questioning.
“We don’t intend to cause trouble for the [CNRP] lawmakers, we are working to protect the public interest,” he said.
“When a crime is committed, as a prosecutor, we must investigate.”
But speaking from the U.S., where he is meeting with the Cambodian community about the ongoing border dispute, Um Sam An called the questioning a form of intimidation against him and the villagers who had inspected the border in June.
“The authorities are trying to force the villagers to sue us lawmakers,” he said.
The questioning of the four villagers in Svay Rieng follows two other court actions on Monday connected to the ongoing border dispute.
In the capital Phnom Penh, the municipal court formally charged 27-year-old construction worker Phong Seiha of Prey Veng province for allegedly posting a death threat on Facebook last month aimed at Sok Touch, the head of border research for the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
Phong Seiha faces a maximum jail sentence of two years, if convicted.
Speaking to reporters before he was taken to Prey Sar Prison, Phong Seiha said that no one had ordered him to make the threat and that he, alone, was responsible for posting it.
Sok Touch, who is investigating the demarcation of the border with Vietnam, has reportedly received several threats related to his work.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said the court should “investigate the case carefully” before charging Phong Seiha.
He noted that the construction worker was swiftly arrested on Sept. 5 after crossing into Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province from neighboring Thailand, though authorities have yet to solve the case of a death threat made against CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha in 2013.
“We welcome the arrest, but I request the authorities work on solving the death threat against Kem Sokha, because they have yet to arrest any suspects.”
In that case, National Police officer Peng Vannak was questioned but no action was taken.
The Phnom Penh Post cited Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak as saying Peng Vannak had told officers the Facebook account with his name was a fake, but that the investigation was continuing.
Opposition lawyer freed
Also on Monday, the Takeo provincial court freed CNRP lawyer Chhea Taing Sorn, who has been detained since Aug. 29, and fined him 3 million riel (U.S. $730) for distributing documents copied from Facebook that allegedly detailed Vietnam’s strategy to claim Cambodian territory.
Chhea Taing Sorn had been charged for “incitement to commit offense,” which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million (U.S. $975).
His defense attorney Sam Sokong dismissed the court’s decision, saying Chhea Taing Sorn had only printed out copies of the documents when asked for them by his friends and was guilty of no crime.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted Chhea Taing Sorn as saying that he disagreed with the court’s decision to fine him, and claiming that he didn’t have the money to pay it.
“I wonder why [the court] fined me like this. I am not wrong—I am worried about my nation,” he told the Post.
“I did not distribute. I just copied [them], but people took them from me.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.