Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has yet again warned of war and chaos should his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lose commune elections on Sunday, prompting the country’s opposition leader to slam him for trying to upend the democratic process.
In a message posted to his Facebook account late on Wednesday, Hun Sen questioned whether Cambodians want to “try a taste of war and family separation,” after sharing an anecdote about his experience during the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979.
The prime minister said his memory had been stirred by a photo of his son Hun Manet in the arms of the boy’s cousin taken 38 years ago, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese-led invasion, and was saddened to think of how the country might again face a devastating conflict after years of healing.
“This photo gave me a chance of reflection to compare progress made by the people and the nation from the most difficult time in the aftermath of the collapse of the [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot regime and this present moment,” he said.
“For me, it meant a million tear drops for a woman who was separated from her husband, and once I returned to meet my wife and son, my sad son referred to me as ‘uncle.’ As one can see [from the photo], he preferred his cousin carry and feed him instead of letting me come near him.”
Since then, Hun Manet and millions of other Cambodian children have “blossomed … under the leadership of the CPP,” Hun Sen said, questioning why anyone might entertain the idea of putting a different government in power.
“Does anyone want to try a taste of war and family separation anymore—this is the theme for the upcoming election, a choice between war and peace,” he said.
“I reaffirm that so long as there are any insults, incitements or ‘coloring’ [of the ruling party], the source of war and chaos in Cambodia will always exist.”
Cambodia's 2015 election law forbids officials and civil servants from making public threats, but a spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC) claimed to be unaware of Hun Sen’s statement and said it was unclear if the electoral body would investigate.
“Please wait until I report the matter to NEC and see if it will make any decision,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “As for now, I don’t know.”
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 32 years under the CPP, has warned repeatedly that opposition victories in local elections on June 4 and in parliamentary polls in 2018 will bring war to the country.
Hang Puthea had previously said the NEC would investigate the prime minister’s threats if a complaint is filed by a political party.
Hun Sen’s Facebook post came the same day that the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)—a group of former and serving Southeast Asian lawmakers—issued a statement expressing “concerns about the repeated threats of violence made by high-ranking members of the ruling party” and calling for an end to “intimidation.”
Response to threat
Speaking to RFA on Thursday, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) spokesperson Yim Sovann said he had no interest in responding to Hun Sen’s warning, adding that he would leave the issue for the country’s voters to address on June 4.
But CNRP President Kem Sokha told supporters at a campaign rally in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district on Thursday that those who warn of war, should they lose a ballot, are seek to undermine the electoral process.
“Power [should] change through ballots, not bullets and war,” he said. “Those who consider war are non-democrats.”
Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) executive director Sam Kuntheamy told RFA that the election law does not stipulate a punishment for individuals who issue campaign threats, and while the most likely course of action would be to deliver a warning or summon the offender for clarification, neither is likely to happen in this case.
“The NEC probably dares not do that—neither issuing any notification to nor summoning the person concerned for clarification,” he said.
Also on Thursday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior announced that it plans to “take action” against any nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) espousing views deemed biased towards the opposition.
Spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said a working group has been monitoring the activities of “a number of organizations” that had failed to uphold their statutes of association regarding neutrality filed with the ministry, adding that they may face prosecution in accordance with the law.
“We request all organizations to strictly uphold their roles as NGOs, as development partners of the government and the nation, in all areas or institutions, either for progress of democracy or human rights,” he said.
“[They] should not be serving the political platform of the opposition party or upholding any political parties.”
Khieu Sopheak specifically mentioned a recent statement by the Situation Room group of NGOs—including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—criticizing a warning from defense minister Tea Banh that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a CPP election win.
Any group found to be violating the principles of neutrality as stipulated in Article 24 of the Law on Associations and NGOs may be subject to legal action, he said, including a ministry shutdown of the organization under the same law’s Article 30.
NGOs countered Thursday by saying they are working to empower Cambodia’s citizens, not in support of any political party.
“Our past statements are part of our efforts at urging officials to serve the interests of the citizens and to remain independent,” said Tim Malay, head of the Cambodian Youth Network—a member group of the Situation Room.
ADHOC spokesperson Sam Chankea told RFA he was not surprised by the Ministry of Interior’s warning.
“The ministry has issued several reminders to organizations and associations that dare to criticize or express their opinions—this is a normal practice by Cambodia’s government,” he said.
“In the 26 years since ADHOC was founded, the organization has never shown bias toward any political party … We simply monitor violations of political and human rights, and we have never provided support or assistance to any party.”
Political observers expect the CNRP—one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—to give the CPP a run for its money in this weekend’s commune elections, which many see as a bellwether for general elections scheduled for 2018.
Reported by Savi Khorn and Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.