By refusing to make some of his cabinet available for questioning by the National Assembly, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing his attempts to put his opposition on the sidelines.
In a Tuesday interview Hun Sen told the pro-government media outlet Fresh News that he is refusing to allow three of his ministers to respond to questioning in the National Assembly.
Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) wanted to grill Minister of National Defense Tea Banh, Minister of Agriculture Veng Sakhon, and Minister of Labor and Vocational Training Ith Sam Heng on a range of issues.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s decision runs contrary to the National Assembly’s rules and the country’s constitution.
“He [Hun Sen] violates the constitution and the internal rules of the National Assembly,” Lao Mong Hay said. “The internal rules say questions and answers shall occur every Thursday.”
While opposition lawmakers have the right to question the ministers, the ministers also have protections, Lao Mong Hay explained.
“There are also conditions for the questions to be raised,” he said. “For example, it is forbidden to ask questions related to cases being processed by the court.”
Military promotions, the border and labor issues
Those protections could stifle some questions, but opposition lawmakers could still put the ministers on the spot as the ongoing controversy over the demarcation of the border with Vietnam, a lack of jobs, and the recent promotion of three soldiers who pled guilty to beating a pair of opposition lawmakers could be fair game.
CNRP Chief Whip Son Chhay told RFA he wants to see a written letter from Hun Sen explaining why the ministers cannot appear before the National Assembly.
“We want to question them about reform,” he said.
“Does the ministry of national defense have a proper mechanism to defend the territory; for promotions in rank, et cetera?” he added. “Because lately we have noticed that some guys without the proper background have been promoted too quickly. We just want to know the procedures.”
On May 27, 2016 soldiers Mao Hoeun, Sot Vanny, and Chay Sarith pled guilty to assaulting CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun.
All three men were members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, an elite operation within the Cambodian armed forces that functions as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Asia’s longest-serving national leader.
Though the three pled guilty to the attack, they served only a year of their four-year sentence in prison.
Soon after they were released in November, the men were promoted, although it’s unclear whether they still remain in the bodyguard unit.
Chay Sarith was promoted from colonel to brigadier general by a royal decree signed by King Norodom Sihamoni dated Nov. 22. Sot Vanny and Mao Hoeun were promoted from lieutenant colonel to full colonel on Nov. 17.
The border issue has been a potent political issue as opposition lawmakers have often accused Hun Sen of ceding land to neighboring Vietnam and of having an uncomfortably cozy relationship with Hanoi.
Labor issues have also bedeviled Cambodia for years, and CNRP lawmakers want to probe the exploitation of Cambodians working overseas and issues involving the issuance of passports and visas for workers.
‘These threats show the panic of Hun Sen’
Hun Sen’s decision to keep his ministers from testifying comes after he launched a new attack on the opposition.
In a Tuesday speech before the National Assembly, Hun Sen pushed for legislation that would bar his chief political rival from heading a political party and threatened to seize and auction off the CNRP’s headquarters.
Those threats came after the National Assembly stripped CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha of his minority leader title. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) holds a majority in the National Assembly.
“Threatening to have CNRP headquarters seized looks like an attempt to eliminate the party by destroying the CNRP leadership and foundation,” said independent analyst Meas Ny. “If it happened as per Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, it would be a big danger for the CNRP.”
Via his Facebook page, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy described Hun Sen’s latest actions as those of a man desperate to hold on to power.
“These threats show the panic of Hun Sen as his certain defeat in the communal elections in June 2017 and the legislative elections of July 2018 draw closer,” Rainsy wrote in his post. “He no longer has any appeal to the electorate, so he personally hounds me, as I am the symbol of resistance to his autocratic and corrupt power.”
In September, Sam Rainsy was found guilty of defamation for claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s social medial team had bought “likes” on Facebook from “click farms” abroad to increase the appearance of support.
And in December, he was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia for posting what authorities said was a fake government pledge to dissolve the Southeast Asian country's border with Vietnam.
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
Despite what appears to be a vendetta against him, Sam Rainsy said that he remains confident he will prevail in the end.
“Hun Sen has tried for years to misuse the courts to exclude me from politics and to suppress or divide the CNRP, so in that sense there is nothing new,” he wrote in the post.
“He has failed because the CNRP remains a united force that will defeat him in the 2017 and 2018 elections.”
Reported by Zakariya Tin and Sarada Taing for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.