Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition party officials clashed this week over the relationship their country and its long-time ruler have with Vietnam.
The tit-for-tat came as Hun Sen reacted to a post on the prime minister’s Facebook page by a Pham Duc Hien, who claimed that “Hun Sen has betrayed Vietnam.”
The post provoked the Cambodian strongman to make an extensive post of his own on Sunday that reads in part:
“Vietnam is not my boss. I’m not obligated to be loyal to her. If you are a legal Vietnamese immigrant in Cambodia, you have to abide by Cambodian law. If you are an illegal Vietnamese immigrant, you have to leave Cambodia.”
Vietnam and Cambodia have had a fraught relationship for centuries, but the animosity with Hun Sen dates from the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation that ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen emerged and was appointed during the period of Hanoi control over Cambodia.
As Cambodian foreign minister and then prime minister, Hun Sen played an important role in the 1991 Paris Peace Talks that brokered peace among Cambodia’s warring factions.
Hun Sen’s Facebook post prompted senior opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang to express surprise at the exchange.
A joyous applause?
“If this political vision is genuine, Cambodians applaud it with joy. Likewise the CNRP welcomes it,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“However, to make Cambodians strong at the national and international level, there must be genuine national unity and reconciliation. The CNRP, therefore, calls on all parties to resume a dialogue to prove it.”
The CNRP has been trying to restart the shaky truce known as the “culture of dialogue” between Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy that eased a months-long political standoff following national elections in 2013.
While the CNRP has attempted to resurrect the “culture of dialogue,” the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has shown little interest in a rapprochement.
The prime minister’s relationship with Vietnam has been used by the opposition to raise questions about Hun Sen’s loyalties. Hun Sen has also attacked political opponents who have attempted to make it an issue.
In April, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Um Sam An was jailed after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam.
In 2015 police arrested Sam Rainsy Party Senator Hong Sok Hour after he posted comments on social media that claimed an article in the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than define, the border between the two countries.
Although the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, the party still holds seats in the Senate. It is expected to fully integrate with the CNRP after the national elections in 2018.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy was found guilty Thursday of defaming National Assembly President Heng Samrin over a video the CNRP president posted on Facebook in 2015 that shows former King Norodom Sihanouk giving a speech with the words:
“We remember that the regime born on 7 January 1979 used their court [system] to sentence [late] King Norodom Sihanouk to death on the accusation of being a traitor.”
Heng Samrin was president of Cambodia from 1979 to 1992, leading a government installed following an invasion by Vietnam that ended the four-year rule of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. Heng Samrin contended the Facebook statement had negatively affected his reputation.
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad since he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in 2015 because of a warrant issued for his arrest in another defamation case in which he accused Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong of running a prison for the Khmer Rouge.
While Rainsy managed to escape Cambodia, Hun Sen has attempted to keep other opposition lawmakers close to home.
‘I’m warning you’
During a recent ceremony to open National Road 44, Hun Sen used a chess game analogy when referring to opposition Senator Thak Lany. Without referring to her by name, Hun Sen said she had attempted to leave the country.
“Some people were trying to put me in checkmate, but yesterday I put them in checkmate,” he said. “Now that the case has made its way to the court, I have learned that the person attempted to cross the border through Poipet on July 31 to get some medical treatment.”
Poipet lies on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
Hun Sen added: “I’m warning you! Don’t even think about crossing or you’ll get arrested! You have to stay here to have a taste of your own medicine.”
Thak Lany is facing a defamation lawsuit for allegedly making allegations in a speech that Hun Sen had a hand in the July 10 slaying of popular government critic Kem Ley. It’s an allegation she denies.
CNRP has tasked Lawyer Som Sokong with representing Thak Lany, even though senior CNRP lawmakers say they have little faith in the Cambodian judicial system.
“Whenever a leader or a person in power wants it a certain way, the court will just follow it,’ said senior CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang. “Even if we provide a lawyer for her, it’s just to satisfy the judicial requirement. We do not have any faith in the court.”
Reported by Chandara Yang and Sothearin Yeang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.