Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday brushed aside calls by members of the Cambodian diaspora in Japan to resign, pledging instead to “wage war” against his country’s banned opposition party and vowing to “destroy” its acting president, Sam Rainsy.
During the third day of his May 28-31 visit to Tokyo to attend the 25th session of the Future of Asia conference, Hun Sen told regional leaders during a speech that he has no plans to step down or to back off former members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to topple the government.
“I am declaring today that we will continue to implement legal measures against those who are being charged [with crimes],” Hun Sen said, referring to members of the CNRP leadership in exile, including Sam Rainsy, who fled the country in 2016 to avoid what he says are politically motivated convictions, and has worked to gather support for the party abroad.
“Meanwhile, I am waging war against a person [Sam Rainsy] who has claimed to have established a movement in Japan, Thailand and Cambodia to stage a war against me,” he added, calling the CNRP chief “a dog that I need to destroy.”
As long as the CNRP “continues to wage a war against me, I will continue to fight them,” Hun Sen vowed.
The 2017 Supreme Court ruling banning the CNRP paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year widely seen as unfree and unfair, amid a wider crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
In addition to ongoing political restrictions on former CNRP officials, authorities have summoned dozens of former CNRP members in Battambang and Kampong Thom provinces for questioning in recent weeks for allegedly violating the Supreme Court decision after they were seen in public eating noodles together or had expressed support in social media posts for the party’s leaders.
Anti-Hun Sen protests
On Thursday, more than 30 members of Japan’s Cambodian diaspora held a protest outside of Hun Sen’s hotel in Tokyo, carrying banners demanding that he step down, and urging China to stop supporting his rule.
They also gathered outside of the home of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and in front of the National Diet of Japan, or parliament, shouting “Hun Sen must go” and likening him to Pol Pot, under whose 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime an estimated 3 million Cambodians are believed to have died.
Several protesters told RFA’s Khmer Service that they had left Cambodia to find work in Japan because they lacked opportunities back home, including Nep Bora, who said she envies Japanese citizens because “their government is taking care of them.”
“Hun Sen has been in power for about 40 years, but we don’t even have enough water and electricity,” she said of Southeast Asia’s longest ruling strongman.
Others highlighted governance issues under Hun Sen’s watch that include forest destruction, land disputes, rampant corruption, and widespread poverty.
In response to Hun Sen’s comments on Thursday, Sam Rainsy told RFA that the CNRP has no intention of starting a war against the prime minister, who he labeled a “gangster” that resorts to “abusive language.”
“We don’t regard Cambodians as enemies,” he said.
“Hun Sen is waging a war against Cambodians … I am appealing to Cambodians to oppose this dictator to prevent him from destroying our nation.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay warned that the war of words between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy is affecting Cambodia’s international reputation.
He also suggested that Hun Sen’s threats are part of a bid to dissuade Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia, as he has vowed to do this year so that he can lead the opposition to victory over the ruling party.
While in Japan, Hun Sen expressed gratitude to his hosts for contributing to Cambodia’s development through financing and infrastructure, as well as investment by the Japanese private sector, and called for additional assistance from Tokyo going forward.
Hun Sen also met on Wednesday with Takahashi Fumiaki, the chairman of the Japan-Cambodia Association and former Japanese ambassador to Cambodia, and requested that he inform Washington that Cambodia does not regard the U.S. as an “enemy.”
“Samdech clarified that Cambodia won’t view any country as an enemies, including the U.S., as long as it can maintain its independence and integrity,” the prime minister later said in a message posted to his Facebook account, referring to himself in the third person by his honorific title.
“Samdech asked Takahashi Fumiaki to inform the U.S. that Cambodia still wants to be a good friend of the U.S., and Samdech denied any notion that Cambodia is embracing China over the U.S.—that is incorrect.”
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western trade partners and aid donors after the 2017 Supreme Court decision banning the CNRP, prompting the U.S. to announce visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country.
On May 14, U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill to Congress that would prevent the authorization of funds to assist Cambodia’s government unless it immediately release CNRP president Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges, from de facto house arrest and reverse other rollbacks on democracy.
China’s growing influence
China offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government following last year’s election and has since prioritized improved relations with Cambodia, in part through assistance without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Speaking with RFA, analyst Meas Ny said that if Hun Sen hopes to hedge his bets on China and restore good relations with the U.S., he should communicate with Washington directly through the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.
But he suggested that Hun Sen’s comments are an attempt to convince Cambodians that he “isn’t biased towards China,” and warned that relations between Phnom Penh and Washington will only be improved when the prime minister ends his crackdown on those critical of his government.
“Cambodia must first adjust itself and respect human rights and democracy,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.