The Cambodian government on Wednesday called a cutoff of aid, including military support, by the United States and a threat of sanctions by the European Union “an insult,” while Prime Minister Hun Sen said the country is importing thousands of tons of military weapons from an unnamed nation.
A day earlier, the White House announced that it was ending or curtailing several U.S. Treasury Department, USAID, and American military assistance programs that support Cambodia’s taxation department, local governments, and military.
The U.S. cited recent setbacks to democracy in Cambodia, including the recent Senate elections in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took all seats in an uncontested vote held just over three months after the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Washington has spent more than $1 billion in support for Cambodia over the last 25 years, the White House said, adding that aid for health care, agriculture, and mine-clearing would continue.
The European Union on Feb. 26 threatened the Cambodian government with “specific targeted measures” if it failed to stop using the judiciary as a “political tool” to harass and intimidate political opponents, civil society, labor rights activists, and human rights defenders.
“It is sad and shocking that our friends have decided to cut their development assistance to Cambodia!” wrote Phay Siphan, spokesman of Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, on his Facebook in response to the aid cuts.
“Such sanctions are nothing short of an insult to Cambodians and hurt those who love real democracy,” he said, adding that the U.S. and other Western countries had intervened in Cambodia’s internal affairs when the Southeast Asia nation was going through “a bitter period” in 1970-1975.
The years encompassed a civil war during which the U.S.-backed government forces fought against the Communist Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese allies for control of Cambodia.
“Cambodia can never forget those bad memories,” Phay Siphan wrote. “Cambodia will continue to be self-sufficient and strive for and build democracy on its own and free from foreign interference.”
The CNRP, which applauded the move by the EU Foreign Affairs Council, issued a call for dialogue with the CPP to address the current political crisis, but the ruling party dismissed the suggestion, saying that the opposition was “dead.”
“There is no dialogue whatsoever,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan wrote on Wednesday on Telegram, a messaging app used by Cambodian officials. “The CNRP is dead. A dead body cannot come alive again.”
“The call for a national dialogue is nothing but pure frustration expressed by the fugitives and the outlawed that they are now at a dead end,” he said.
Hun Sen has targeted the political opposition, NGOs, and independent media in a months-long crackdown to silence government critics ahead of a general election on July 29.
CNRP lawmakers in exile, including former party chief Sam Rainsy, have launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement to put pressure on the government to end its persecution of the opposition and ensure free and fair elections.
Meanwhile, during a speech to several thousand factory workers in Kampong Speu province on Wednesday, Hun Sen said Cambodia is receiving thousands of tons of military supplies, including weapons, from a foreign country he did not name, but is believed to be China.
“Last night our special goods were shipped to Cambodia,” he said. “By special goods I mean something that is confidential. However they are not drugs. They are up to 10,000 tons of supplies. They were transported in containers. A country must have the means of national defense.”
He went on to say that Tea Banh, Cambodia’s national defense minister, is in charge of the shipments.
“You can now guess what the goods are because I’ve told you that they are being taken care of by Tea Banh,” Hun Sen said. “Of course, he would not ship flowers. The supplies must be ammunition and weapons.”
Tea Banh famously vowed last year to “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party in local elections. Hun Sen has also repeatedly threatened his opponents with violence.
Cambodian and Chinese soldiers will be holding the next iteration of a joint military exercise dubbed “Golden Dragon” in March as both countries commemorate the 60th anniversary of their ties this year.
In his address to factory workers, Hun Sen also encouraged Cambodian-Australians to burn and vandalize seven-headed naga, or dragon, statues that decorate Cambodian temples in Australia if they do not like him rather than burn effigies of him, as they have threatened to do.
A week ago, the premier said he would beat protesters who burned photos of him during an upcoming trip to Australia and threatened to boycott the ASEAN-Australian Special Summit on March 17-18 over pressure on his government for its crackdown on the opposition, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
In response, some Cambodian-Australian residents said they would burn Hun Sen in effigy during demonstrations coinciding with his visit while demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and the reinstatement of the CNRP, the report said.
“Let me give those protesters some tips,” Hun Sen told the workers in Kampong Speu province. “Burning effigies of me is not effective at all. On the contrary, I feel good. If you want a better result and hope that Hun Sen will die when you cast your spells, may I ask you to burn the naga statues and smash them all at every Khmer temple?”
Australian lawmaker Chris Bowen, the country’s former immigration and citizenship minister, lashed out at Hun Sen’s threat to bash Cambodian-Australians who protest against him.
“The Cambodian community is rightly outraged and they are frankly … scared, and they need to know that this parliament will not put up with that sort of language from anybody even if they are head of another country and even if they are head of a member of ASEAN,” he told the lower house of parliament on Wednesday.
“We will stand with the Cambodian-Australian community and their right to engage in peaceful protest,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.