Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday defended the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason and further accused the U.S. of trying to topple his government amid international condemnation of an ongoing crackdown in the country ahead of an election set for next year.
Speaking to more than 15,000 factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh as part of a bid to earn the trust of voters in the lead up to a July 2018 general election, Hun Sen said he had acted in defense of the nation by arresting Kem Sokha and threatened to continue detaining members of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) until the party is eliminated.
The prime minister suggested that a January 2014 strike by garment workers in Phnom Penh over wages that was broken up when police shot and killed four people had been engineered by the opposition party—which made substantial gains in the country’s general election the previous year—at the behest of Washington.
“[The CNRP] used to chant ‘Step Down Hun Sen’ and you created a movement that caused the deaths of several people on Veng Sreng Street,” he said, referring to the area of the capital where the strike took place.
“Was that an act of respect of the people’s will or a revolt backed by a foreign power to instigate another war in Cambodia?”
On Monday, the National Assembly approved four amendments to the country’s electoral law, despite a boycott by the parliament’s 55 CNRP lawmakers, paving the way for their seats to be redistributed to smaller government-aligned parties in the event that the opposition party is dissolved.
Cambodia’s Senate Committee will convene on Thursday to review the amendments. The senate will send the amendments, with any proposed changes, back to parliament’s Constitutional Council which, after further review, will forward them on to King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval.
Hun Sen’s comments apparently referred to a statement Tuesday by CNRP lawmakers, who called the approval of the amendments by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members of parliament an “abuse of power … [and]the will of the people.”
The prime minister reminded the CNRP that “you were defeated” in 2013’s elections, “yet you have not abandoned your bad intentions.”
Arrest for ‘treason’
He also defended the Sept. 3 arrest of Kem Sokha, who has been charged with “treason” for collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the CPP, in a move critics say shows Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of next year’s ballot.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
“You may ask me why Kem Sokha has just been arrested for a speech he made several years ago,” Hun Sen said.
“It’s not about when to carry out the arrest, but about how relevant the evidence regarding his speech was. It’s about the consistency of his speech and his acts,” he added.
“The search is underway. When the evidence is well established and consistent, not only Kem Sokha will be liable for the crime, but the entire opposition party shall be dissolved.”
Hun Sen also took aim at the U.S. for carrying out a secret bombing campaign within Cambodia from 1969-1970 in a bid to wipe out safe havens for Communist Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, accusing Washington of maintaining a double standard for accusing his government of human rights abuses.
“More cases of victims affected by the bombs have since been found, and this was a tragedy caused by a foreign power,” he said.
“The children of the villagers in the affected areas have birth defects … [When the U.S.] dropped millions of tons of bombs on us, did you ever think about human rights and democracy? Now we have to set up centers to treat people who have been affected by the radiation leaked from those bombs.”
Hun Sen’s comments came as a group of organizations, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, held a press conference in Bangkok, calling on the international community to prevent Cambodia from abandoning democracy.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, called for sanctions against Cambodia in response to the ongoing crackdown in the country, and urged governments to withdraw technical assistance for the country’s elections next year if the CNRP is dissolved.
“Quite clearly we’re on the cusp of losing another democracy in the world,” Roberston said, adding that Washington “has essentially stood by and allowed it to happen.”
“Hun Sen is looking around, he’s seeing very little comment from the international community, and for him that’s a green light to continue the repression.”
Also on Wednesday, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) expressed “deep concern” about what it termed the “increasing repression and escalation of human rights violations against opposition MPs” in Cambodia on the closing day of the 137th IPU Assembly in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In a statement, the IPU called for fact-finding missions by its Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians to be sent to Cambodia, as well as to Venezuela, Turkey, and the Maldives, in the near future.
The IPU dismissed the use of the 2013 video as evidence of treason against Kem Sokha, demanding that he be immediately released and allowed to resume his duties as a parliamentarian and the president of the opposition.
It also urged Cambodian authorities to allow for the return of opposition MPs who had been forced into exile so that they could campaign freely ahead of the 2018 election.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.