Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday threatened to use Cambodia’s army against supporters of banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president Sam Rainsy’s planned return from self-imposed exile next month.
Hun Sen, who had his top court ban the CNRP in 2017 after jailing its leader in a wider crackdown on civil society, also threatened to cut off the fingers of opposition supporters who flash a “nine-fingers” hand sign symbolizing November 9, Sam Rainsy’s announce date of return.
“Anyone taking part in a campaign aiming at destructing the country and peace on November 9 will be subject to punishment and conviction,” he told a graduation ceremony at a private school in the capital Phnom Penh.
“It is a plot to carry out a coup d’etat, for regime change! Millions of people and armed forces are waiting for you on November 9. Your head is not made from iron,” Hun Sen said of Sam Rainsy.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid more than a dozen convictions and arrest warrants, and Hun Sen has vowed to jail him as soon as he sets foot inside Cambodia. Sam Rainsy says the charges are spurious and politically motivated, delivered by courts beholden to Hun Sen.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, also took aim at the “nine-fingers” campaign launched in late September by the CNRP, in which supporters raise nine fingers to back the planned Nov. 9 return.
“Don’t ever join the nine-fingers campaign. If you dare do it, you should have one of your remaining fingers cut off,” he told the students.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since August, when the party announced Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia’s armed forces to join him in a restoration of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
As of Oct 2, 30 CNRP activists have been arrested and placed in pre-trial detention, while at least 160 others have been questioned by court or local authorities.
Hun Sen’s rhetoric and the crackdown on CNRP activists, some of whom have been driven into exile, suggests he believes Sam Rainsy will return, said political analyst Meas Nee.
“I think based on the recent measures, I assume that the government may consider that Sam Rainsy is most likely to return to Cambodia, rather than change his mind and not do so. That is why the government has taken the measures,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
A CNRP youth leader based in Japan, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity, said Hun Sen’s crackdown and threats “will further cause we who are living in free countries to be more resolute about returning to Cambodia with Sam Rainsy.”
“We know Hun Sen is very worried about this homecoming.”
In a related development, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni returned to his country after a month in China, where he underwent routine medical checks.
In his absence a group of civil society organizations wrote a letter urging him to intervene and help restore democracy and in Cambodia.
“We are deeply concerned over the present political situation, in which democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and assembly, and press freedom are subject to serious threats and restrictions—a violation of the constitution and the Paris Peace Agreements,” the Sept. 4 letter said.
“We request Your Majesty the King to use your privilege by presiding over a meeting and facilitating a dialogue among politicians from the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the CNRP aimed at restoring democracy and ensuring normalcy in Cambodia.”
The letter was written by the Cambodian Confederation of Unions leader Rong Chhun, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association leader Ouk Chhay Yavy and other civic society leaders and signed by other labor and education figures.
Last month Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Sam Rainsy with “insulting the King,” a day after he gave an interview in which he called Sihamoni a “puppet” of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Tuesday the court held a factual hearing of Sam Rainsy and three other CNRP leaders in absentia on the insulting the king case and announced they will render a verdict on Oct. 18.
In May, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy in absentia to a total of eight years in prison for “demoralizing the armed forces” and “insulting the King” after he issued statements urging the military to refrain from arresting him upon his return to Cambodia and calling an election letter written by Sihamoni “fake or written under duress.”
The convictions were added to a list of those carrying sentences the opposition chief has yet to serve, including a five-year jail term for forging documents about the border shared by Cambodia and Vietnam in 2016, and a 20-month jail term for defamation after he accused Hun Sen of being responsible for the murder of political analyst Kem Ley that same year.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert