Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday appeared to warn the nation that his patience with the opposition is wearing thin as he reminded everyone that the levers of power in Cambodia are in his hands.
In a speech at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, he addressed Cambodia’s current political crisis, dismissing the concerns of the international community, rejecting talks with the opposition Cambodia National rescue Party (CNRP), and warning that his administration will not look kindly upon demonstrations in support of CNRP politicians or their supporters.
“Some people bring the whole party in to protect one individual who has done wrong,” he said. “We hear the word ‘protest.’ Please don’t threaten that in this way. I am telling you. Please don’t make this threat. I will not tolerate it. I am telling you.”
Hun Sen’s government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been backing a push in Cambodia’s courts to bring CNRP leader Kem Sokha in for questioning regarding his alleged affair with a young hairdresser.
The case has seen the arrest of four employees of the human rights group ADHOC and a member of the National Election Commission (NEC), while an arrest warrant was also issued for a U.N. worker.
CNRP headquarters were also raided by heavily armed police in an effort to arrest Kem Sokha for failing to appear in court in a pair of cases related to the alleged affair.
Bail denied for Kem Sokha Five
On Monday, an appeals court in Phnom Penh denied bail for the four rights workers and the NEC official, saying the court feared for their safety and that they have been uncooperative in the investigation into the affair.
The Kem Sokha Five are facing bribery or accessory charges for allegedly attempting to keep hairdresser Khem Chandaraty quiet about her alleged affair with Kem Sokha.
An attorney defending the Kem Sokha Five said they are willing to cooperate, but that the court is unwilling to listen.
“The appeal court’s decision is not right,” said attorney Sam Sokong. “They are qualified to be free on bail, but the court did not consider this matter and the legal process.”
The decision was dismissed by rights workers as politically motivated. Licadho investigator Am Sam Ath told RFA the Kem Sokha Five would go free if it were not for political interference.
“If we are talking about the legal perspective, they are qualified for bail, but the political environment makes it harder,” he said.
Before being sent back to jail on Monday, NEC Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakrya and ADHOC worker Yi Soksan shouted to supporters from their prison vehicle urging them to continue the “Black Monday” protests.
“Detention of civil society groups should not happen in a rule-of-law country,” they shouted. “We want the charges dropped. We support Black Monday!”
The Black Monday protests were launched by civil society groups after authorities arrested the Kem Sokha Five. It gets its name from the black shirts demonstrators wear as they protest outside the notorious Prey Sar prison.
Don’t tread on the CPP
While there were recent reports that CNRP and CPP “working groups” would meet in an effort to resolve the ongoing crises, Hun Sen appeared to reject that effort during his speech.
“The CPP is not a stone to be stepped upon, or a puppet for any political party to use to solve the mistakes of their makers,” Hun Sen said.
The Kem Sokha saga has caused political turmoil in Cambodia as the CNRP and its allies mount the gravest threat yet to Hun Sen’s 31-year reign.
While Hun Sen and the CPP have ruled the country for more than three decades, Cambodia’s ruling party suffered a dramatic drop in support during the country’s last election in 2013, and could see even more erosion in the 2017 commune elections and 2018 general election.
CNRP’s secretary general Eng Chhai Eang told RFA’s Khmer service his party has no plans for mass protests against the government.
The CNRP does plan a mass meeting at party headquarters on Tuesday, and the opposition party also plans to deliver a second batch of petitions to King Norodom Sihamoni seeking his help in releasing the Kem Sokha Five and ending what they see as the persecution of Kem Sokha, Eng Chhai Eang said.
Police were erecting barricades Monday in downtown Phnom Penh in what appears to be an attempt to prevent people from gathering near the CNRP headquarters.
‘A political game’
Eng Chhai Eang told RFA that the CNRP plans to maintain its stance that Kem Sokha should stay out of court because he has parliamentary immunity, and that the case against him is politically motivated.
“We can’t let the court solve this issue,” he said. “As you know, the court is just a tool for a political game that has been used to change the subject of the story. Everybody clearly sees that.”
Eng Chhai Eang told RFA that the recent threat by the European Union (EU) to withhold funds until the crisis is resolved, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal attempt to get the CPP and the CNRP back to the negotiating table, mark international recognition of the political nature of the crisis.
A European Parliament resolution approved on June 9 calls on Cambodia to release the Kem Sokha Five or face losing millions in EU aid. On June 7, Ban urged Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhon to resume the “culture of dialogue between the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),” according to a U.N. summary of the call.
“Ban Ki-moon and the European Parliament clearly understand this matter,” Eng Chhai Eang said. “If it is a love affair or an individual matter, then the U.N.secretary general and the European parliament, with its 28 member-countries and 600 lawmakers, wouldn’t get a headache about this, but this is a political issue.”
Hun Sen tells off the EU
For his part, Hun Sen dismissed the E.U.’s threat, telling the university students cutting aid would harm his opponents more than it would hurt him or his supporters.
“The ones who die first are the nongovernmental organizations. The aid is never injected into the government,” he said. “It’s only injected to NGOs. The people who will die are the people who make hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars. So don’t just intimidate us this way.”
While Hun Sen was critical of the EU, the U.N. and the U.S., he praised China, saying it is the main source of loans for infrastructure in the country.
“China also has never threatened us like this. Cambodia has its own political independence,” he said. “China also never advised Cambodia to do this and that.”
Independent social researcher Kem Ley warned that EU cuts would be a disaster for Cambodia.
“If we ignore the Europeans’ measure, and if they freeze their aid, it will lead to aid cuts,” he said. “If they cut aid, other countries will have a reason for economic sanctions that would ban Cambodian exports.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm, Mengchou Cheng, Maly Leng and Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.