Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Wednesday warned the public not to fall victim to “propaganda” from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and protest the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which he said had won the right to govern through legitimate elections.
“Do not believe in the propaganda of certain politicians who seek to mobilize people to support them by demonstrating against the government,” Sar Kheng said, without using the name of the opposition party, which the Supreme Court banned in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime.
“Appealing to people to join demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the government is unlawful, so I am working hard to bolster the security of the nation,” he said.
The minister suggested such demonstrations could prompt a “reshuffle” that leads to a situation where “we won’t know how long it will take to return Cambodia to the current situation where we enjoy democracy and hold an election every five years.”
Sar Kheng maintained that the CPP has a legitimate mandate to govern Cambodia, despite the dissolution of the CNRP which—along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media—paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“We have an election process,” he told the public, urging them to express their political views at the ballot box, instead of in the streets.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western governments following the 2018 election, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended Monday to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Sar Kheng’s appeal came after acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy walked back plans to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in September to lead a restoration of democracy in the country, but suggested he would do so before the end of the year, prompting messages of support from Cambodians who said they would risk arrest to welcome him home.
The announcement prompted government spokesperson Phay Siphan to say that the ruling party was “not impressed” by his plans to return to Cambodia, suggesting that he was using “psychological warfare to get attention,” but warning him that his strategy is “useless.”
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, but has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile while CNRP President Kem Sokha is held under de facto house arrest awaiting a trial on charges of “treason.”
Support for return
Last week, top-ranking officials with Cambodia’s security forces said they were arranging the deployment of authorities to all border checkpoints in anticipation of Sam Rainsy and other senior opposition leaders in exile, with orders to arrest them and escort them to jail.
Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand on Wednesday reiterated their support for Sam Rainsy and the CNRP, telling RFA’s Khmer Service that they have nothing to lose by backing the opposition leader.
Chan Borey, a textile worker in Bangkok, said that no matter what officials in Phnom Penh say, Cambodian workers in Thailand will “accompany Sam Rainsy home,” adding that democracy in Cambodia is “dead” and the country “belongs to Hun Sen, his family, and his faction.”
“It doesn’t matter how much Sar Kheng appeals to the public, I vow to return to Cambodia with Sam Rainsy because our country has no democracy anymore,” he said.
“While the current situation is bad, the future for our children will be even worse [if things remain as they are]. Life is convenient for [Hun Sen], but hundreds of thousands of people are migrating to Thailand [to find work].”
Another migrant worker in Thailand, Chem Phat, said Sar Kheng need not lecture the Cambodian people on respect for the law, because they are “ready to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Instead, he urged Hun Sen’s regime to end its abuse of Cambodia’s laws.
He said he also plans to join “hundreds of thousands” of other Cambodians in welcoming Sam Rainsy home.
“I would sacrifice my life for the nation, but I will not listen to Sar Kheng,” he said.
“I am not afraid and I encourage others—both from Cambodia and abroad—to join Sam Rainsy when he returns home. We have to protest for the survival of democracy, human rights and the release of Kem Sokha.”
Hun Sen’s ‘dictatorship’
Korn Savang, coordinator for Cambodian election watchdog COMFREL, told RFA that it is the constitutional right of Cambodians to hold peaceful demonstrations to express their political opinions, despite Sar Kheng’s suggestion otherwise.
“The most important thing is that the government work to improve the situation of human rights in Cambodia,” he said, calling for a resolution to the country’s political impasse through dialogue.
The CNRP’s coordinator in Thailand, Mounh Sarath, told RFA that Cambodia needs to be “rescued from a dictatorship” that has allowed the public to fall into debt, national resources to be controlled by foreign governments, and the country to potentially lose its EBA status.
“People are already mired in poverty, so if the economy implodes, what will happen to them,” he asked.
“This is a big problem, so as owners of the country, we are all obligated to work together to help rescue Cambodia from destruction.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.