Defence Minister Tea Banh in a speech yesterday characterised the opposition’s rallying cry of “change” as a threat to national stability and peace, a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen promised to ensure free and fair elections.
In an address to military officials and other attendees, Banh linked people’s calls for “change, change” – a hallmark of opposition rallies during and after the 2013 national elections – to “disaster and tragedy”.
“There are some movements that cause disaster, and they also shout ‘change, change’ non-stop. There is zero tolerance for letting peace be destroyed,” he said, in what appeared to be a thinly veiled threat to the opposition.
He then appeared to reject the very notion of regime change, vowing not only to thwart any so-called colour revolutions – a term for nonviolent populist movements, and a source of concern for the ruling party – but also to prevent anything that endangered the “the achievement that happened from the Win-Win Policy”.
Hun Sen’s so-called Win-Win Policy granted amnesty to certain Khmer Rouge fighters, helping to end the country’s long-running civil war.
“We will not allow any movement – be it colour revolution or non-colour revolution – to happen, and that was a lesson learned from history.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday took the rhetoric a step further, arguing the word “change” in this context was “unconstitutional”.
“To our experience, it’s a bad word. We learned from 1970, from 1975, and we also learnt from 2013,” he said.
In 1970, Cambodia descended deeper into civil war after Lon Nol staged a coup against Norodom Sihanouk, only to be toppled by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge five years later, bringing about a regime that oversaw the deaths of some 1.7 million people. In 2013, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) boycotted the National Assembly due to alleged election fraud.
“[The CNRP] used the word change as a demand for revolution – they asked the prime minister to step down,” he said.
“It’s against the constitution – the constitution doesn’t say anything about change,” he said, and added that protesters might be legally liable for using the word.
The constitution does, however, enshrine Cambodians’ right to “freedom of expression of their ideas” under Article 41.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, meanwhile, called Banh’s remarks “ridiculous”.
“The Cambodian government should not be threatening people just because they want to demand their rights. Last time I checked, Tea Banh and the military were supposed to be defending against external enemies, not using their force to repress people’s rights,” he said.
Reached yesterday, Banh declined to comment.
His remarks, however, came just a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the Interior Ministry’s annual conference that it was the government’s duty “to ensure the safe, free, fair, and acceptable election … to ensure the promotion of the rule of law and democracy in Cambodia”.
Those remarks appeared to be at odds with ones given last Wednesday, in which he appeared to taunt the CNRP with his control of the armed forces, regardless of what happens in next year’s national elections.
“They predict that in 2018 it could win, and if we won’t hand over power, he will crack down on us,” he said, in an apparent reference to comments made by ex-CNRP president Sam Rainsy late last year. “How can he say this if the military is in my hand?”
Sam Kuntheami, executive director of election monitor Nicfec, said Hun Sen’s pledge to ensure fair elections was a positive sign but added that meaningful talks – rather than constant attacks – between the ruling and opposition parties would be the real determining factor in the election’s fairness.
“The two elected parties should keep talking about this. When they stop vocally attacking each other, the election will run smoothly,” he said.