In a rare phone interview with Radio Free Asia, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has lambasted the U.S.-funded broadcaster despite recent conciliatory comments by his government suggesting RFA was welcome to resume its operations in the Southeastern Asian nation.
An RFA reporter in Washington called Hun Sen on Friday regarding another matter entirely—whether the FUNCINPEC party might be chosen as new partner with his one-party government. Hun Sen did not answer that question but launched into a tirade against RFA, accusing it of publishing false news. Prompted twice, he did not substantiate his accusation.
“Your radio is so bad. You can quote my statement on this. Your radio is so bad that I cannot speak with you. You broadcast differently from reality,” Hun Sen said.
“When I said west, you say east. I said about something white, you wrote about something black. You don’t need to ask me anything. I won’t answer your questions. You can listen from other people,” he said.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year old bureau in the Cambodian capital in September 2017 amid a government crackdown on independent media, NGOs and independent critics ahead of national elections in July of this year. With the main opposition party outlawed, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party swept every parliamentary seat.
Over the years, Cambodian journalists working for RFA had reported on corruption, illegal logging, forced evictions, and other issues largely ignored by state-controlled media. RFA is funded by the U.S. Congress but maintains editorial independence.
Challenged to explain why he was accusing RFA of being bad and biased, Hun Sen responded: “You’re crazy. I have said that I would not answer your questions. Yet you are still asking me questions. Go ahead and broadcast my words to prove you are a smart-ass. Sure enough! Your stupidity is now proven!”
When asked why he thought RFA was stupid, the prime minister hung up.
His blunt comments are in contrast to the more conciliatory remarks from his interior minister and the information ministry in the past two weeks, suggesting RFA was free to return to Cambodia.
On Dec. 5, Interior Minister Sar Kheng contended that RFA and Voice of America—which has been taken off the airwaves inside Cambodia but is still able to report in the country—had not been pressured to close their offices in the country in the first place.
“Now we welcome them back. We welcome them to reopen their offices here again,” he said.
Although the interior minister says RFA’s decision to leave Cambodia was not taken under pressure, it followed the authorities’ closure of independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, citing alleged tax and administrative violations. RFA was also accused of failing to pay taxes.
Two months after RFA closed its office, two of its former reporters there, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were arrested and charged with espionage. They deny the charges, which are still pending. They were detained for nine months before being released on bail in August.
Sar Kheng’s comments had followed an earlier statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing Cambodia’s commitment to “strengthen democracy and political space” including the promotion of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
The government is now preparing legislative changes that would allow 118 members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to reenter politics, although the draft law does not allow for the re-establishment of the party.
Nevertheless, the same ministry on Dec. 10 repeated its unfounded accusation that RFA has operated in secret and sought to tarnish the reputation of the Cambodian government.
Pa Nguon Teang, president of the non-government Cambodian Center for Independent Media, told RFA that Hun Sen is under international pressure to soften his attitude toward the media and civil society.
The United States has announced visa restrictions against unnamed government officials accused of undermining democracy in Cambodia. The European Union, which accounts for about 40 percent of Cambodian garment exports, is moving closer to stripping the country of crucial trade benefits in response to the suppression of democracy.
“During the first six months after [the] EU has notified the government of Cambodia of the procedures to withdraw EBA, Hun Sen shows signs of backing down,” Pa Nguon Teang said, referring to the European bloc’s “Everything But Arms” trade program.
But political analyst Kim Sok was skeptical that Hun Sen had had a change of heart since the election which left the ruling Cambodian People’s Party with complete control of parliament. He said that Hun Sen appears to be employing a similar strategy as he has in the past—escalating pressure, then reducing it to allay international criticism.
Reported by Vannarith Im for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Matthew Pennington.