Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday confirmed the authenticity of a recently leaked telephone conversation between himself and opposition leader Kem Sokha, and claimed it proves he engineered the latter’s ascent to the top of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Speaking at a commencement ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said the 21-minute recording—posted Saturday to the “Seiha” Facebook page—was genuine and called on Kem Sokha to acknowledge his part in the conversation.
“I did have that conversation with Kem Sokha and, frankly speaking, I also arranged the plan for him to become [opposition] party president,” the prime minister said.
“It was through a concrete plan about the amendment to the law [on political parties] that … gave 90 days for choosing [a party’s president], meaning [the CNRP] would have to promptly elect a new leader.”
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy resigned in February in order to preserve the CNRP in the face of a new law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party.
The law, which was approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, passed with 66 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), despite a CNRP boycott of parliament in protest. The CNRP last week elevated Kem Sokha from second in command to party president.
Hun Sen on Monday also threatened to release what he said were additional conversations between him and Kem Sokha unless the opposition leader acknowledged that it was his voice in the phone recording.
“If you try to deny it, I will disclose everything, including your communications with me through [texting service] WhatsApp,” he said.
“I’ll release it for you to see what happens next. Let’s see who scolded Hun Sen as being a puppet, but later turned into Hun Sen’s puppet.”
The prime minister said that if Kem Sokha denies his part in the conversation, he should be willing to take a sacred oath to that effect at Preah Ang Dangkeu in front of Cambodia’s Royal Palace.
Hun Sen did not announce any intention to investigate the Seiha Facebook account—the source of several recent leaks that show the opposition in an unflattering light—or to take measures to prevent future leaks.
News of the recording was picked up over the weekend by the government-aligned Fresh News website, which said it had been made in September, when then-deputy president Kem Sokha was in hiding at CNRP headquarters to avoid arrest after being sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to testify in a prostitution case.
According to a transcript of the recording, Hun Sen pressured Kem Sokha to distance himself from Sam Rainsy, who had repeatedly criticized the prime minister in a series of Facebook posts, as part of a plan to diffuse political tensions during the Pchum Ben holiday.
Hun Sen also suggests Kem Sokha would not be arrested if he left CNRP headquarters to register to vote, and urged him to wrest control of the CNRP from Sam Rainsy, who the prime minister refused to work with because of an alleged comment he made implying Hun Sen’s son was fathered by a Vietnamese general.
In its report, Fresh News said that a series of events which took place in the aftermath of the phone conversation show that Kem Sokha had agreed to work with Hun Sen. Soon after, Kem Sokha posted a note to Facebook calling for political calm, registered to vote, condemned claims about Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, and received a royal pardon backed by Hun Sen.
During a meeting on Monday with local CNRP activists and supporters in the Sa-ang and Koh Thom districts of Kandal province, Kem Sokha did not mention the alleged conversation between himself and Hun Sen.
But CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that the recording would not lead to internal divisions within the opposition party. He did not confirm or deny its authenticity.
“The party is functioning normally—the leaders work well together as they normally do,” he said.
On Monday, Sam Rainsy—in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were politically motivated—told RFA that Hun Sen and the CPP fear the opposition will make significant gains in upcoming commune and general elections set for June 2017 and July 2018, respectively.
“That is why they are finding a pretext to dissolve the CNRP or divide the party, or the party’s internal leadership,” he said.
“It is nonsense to attempt that. Don’t ever think that the CNRP can be divided.”
Instead of attacking the CNRP, Sam Rainsy said, Hun Sen should spend his time solving problems affecting Cambodian livelihoods.
“Why is he spending time on nonsense such as wiretapping, eavesdropping and sharing it with the public … Does that mean our country’s leader has too much free time? Why didn’t he use his time to help solve other problems faced by the country?”
A day earlier, Sam Rainsy took to Facebook, urging supporters to ignore falsehoods aimed at splitting the party.
“Please disregard any materials (letters, statements or audio tapes) that have been invented or doctored and published out of their context, and don’t be deceived by such materials, which are just incitements aimed at dividing the CNRP,” he wrote in a post.
“Kem Sokha and I, Sam Rainsy, are as one, meaning we will live and fight together until we succeed in rescuing our nation. Because the other side cannot find any means to weaken the CNRP, they desperately resort to cheaper and cheaper tricks, but eventually and inevitably they will be defeated by the CNRP.”
The post followed an earlier recording shared by the Seiha Facebook account and published last week on Fresh News purportedly showing that some senior CNRP lawmakers, including Mao Monyvann, had colluded with Hun Sen’s cabinet chief Ho Sothy to arrange for Kem Sokha to become head of the opposition party.
Mao Monyvann denied that the conversation had ever taken place in a Facebook post the same day the recording was published, saying it had been “fabricated with the intention to divide us.”
Sok Sam Oeun, an attorney with the AMRIN Law and Consultants Group, told RFA that whether or not the leaked conversation between Hun Sen and Kem Sokha is authentic, Cambodia’s telecommunication law forbids the disclosure of phone call recordings without prior agreement by both parties.
Also on Monday, Hun Sen warned members of Cambodia’s civil society organizations that they could face fines and imprisonment for making statements critical of the government.
At a ground breaking ceremony for a beltway in the capital, the prime minister urged nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work “in accordance with professional standards and the law,” after many groups slammed the government and the CPP over the recently approved political parties law, saying it was an attempt to dissolve the opposition ahead of elections.
“Let me remind you in advance—it happened many times already—don’t be rude or you will end up in jail,” Hun Sen said, referring to an unnamed NGO official.
“The law will put you in jail, not me.”
On Sunday, 78 civil society organizations issued a joint statement expressing their disappointment over the continued detention of human rights activists and political influence over Cambodia’s courts.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the National Assembly approved the bill on Feb. 20 with 44 votes by the CPP.