Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday condemned the killing of four Cambodian United Nations peacekeepers in Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this week, and warned similar violence and civil war is likely to descend on Cambodia if his ruling party loses local elections in June.
Cambodian U.N. peacekeeper Im Sam, a 36-year-old bulldozer driver, was shot to death during an ambush by the largely-Christian Anti-Balaka terrorist group in CAR while traveling in a convoy from his work site to his base on the night of May 8, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense.
Three other peacekeepers who had gone missing during the convoy attack—quality control assistant Seang Norin, 35, excavator driver assistant Mom Tola, 31, and medical staffer Mao Eng, 37—were later found dead, the ministry confirmed Wednesday.
The four are members of an unarmed crew of Cambodian engineers accompanied by armed Moroccan forces in the CAR. Im Sam is Cambodia’s first peacekeeper to ever be killed in combat.
Eight Anti-Balaka fighters were killed on Monday night, with a number of people wounded on both sides, including a fifth Cambodian peacekeeper, driver Thuch Thim, who was shot in the left hand and is now recovering.
The Phnom Penh Post cited Cambodia’s National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces (NPMEC) as confirming that the attack near the village of Yogofongo, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Bangassou, was motivated by Anti-Balaka demands to liberate prisoners held by Moroccan forces.
Speaking at an event to mark Veteran’s Day in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said Cambodia would not be intimidated by the attack.
“Cambodia will continue to send peacekeepers abroad—we shall never be defeated by the acts of terrorism,” he said, adding that 15 million Cambodians, including around 110,000 members of the armed forces and about 60,000 policemen, are “readily prepared for peacekeeping operations.”
The prime minister then shifted gears, suggesting that terrorism and other forms of lawlessness would never be allowed to occur in Cambodia while he is in charge of the nation.
Hun Sen also warned that he will do whatever it takes to keep the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from “ruining” the achievements he has made during his 32-year tenure as leader of Cambodia.
“I shall protect these achievements at all costs—that means the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP shall win all elections,” he said.
“Be warned that, during the [commune] elections in [June] 2017 and 2018 [general] elections, if you continue to [hold protests about election results] you will be cracked down on immediately by the armed forces. I don’t care if war erupts.”
War of words
The strong man said that the opposition should also be careful about what it says in the lead up to the June 4 election.
“Even though you say that you have no guns, war is not necessarily started with weapons,” he said.
“It could be started simply with words. If you claim to love peace, you must educate your underlings to stop cursing [the CPP].”
Advocating for economic sanctions against Cambodia—such as a ban on buying garments or freezing foreign aid—because of human rights abuses is also a way that the opposition is instigating war, according to Hun Sen, who likened such statements to “killing Cambodian workers and farmers.”
In response to Hun Sen’s comments about economic sanctions, CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that the opposition had never called on foreign countries to cut aid to Cambodia.
“We have called for foreign countries to help ensure that foreign assistance is used transparently and accountably,” he said.
“We don’t want foreign aid to fall into the hands of corrupt individuals and want to make sure it benefits all Cambodians. We want donor countries to ensure that the government respects human rights and democracy and that development is genuine and benefits everyone equally.”
Hun Sen has previously warned of violent upheaval in recent months, with CPP-controlled media regularly alluding to civil war as the country prepares for commune elections in June.
In February, the prime minister hinted that he might deploy military force against any political party that attempts to wrest power away from him with a victory in national elections scheduled for July 2018.
Hun Sen, who has already ruled Cambodia for three decades, has previously suggested he would remain in power for 10 more years.
Nearly every previous incident of major political violence in Cambodia since it emerged in the early 1990s from brutal rule by the Khmer Rouge followed by civil war has been attributed to Hun Sen’s ruling party.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The CNRP won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.
Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.
Reported by Sereyvuth Oung and Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.