Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday slammed the election monitoring coalition the Situation Room for describing the recent commune elections as not completely free and fair, and called for the arrest of “any spies in Cambodia”, whether foreigners or citizens.
In a wide-ranging speech to new civil service graduates in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen praised the running of the June 4 commune election, giving the new bipartisan National Election Committee’s performance a grade of “very good”.
Yet he complained about an unnamed party and a group of NGOs who criticised the process as not free and fair by citing an oppressive political climate. Both the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the Situation Room have in the past days raised such concerns.
“I would say that, for them, ‘freedom’ is when they can go freely to the prime minister’s house or even kill him at the scene,” Hun Sen said. “That is what they would call freedom.”
He then went further to accuse the Situation Room, which is composed of elections monitors like Comfrel and Nicfec and civil society groups like Central, of having a well planned out but ultimately feeble agenda against the government.
“I condemn those who interfere in Cambodian’s internal affairs. Also, any spies in Cambodia have to be arrested for legal action regardless of nationality,” he added.
The premier’s outburst appears to have stemmed from a Situation Room statement issued on Saturday that commended the election process, but also pointed to “irregularities” that it said needed to be addressed ahead of next year’s national ballot.
It criticised the “environment of political suppression” during the months leading up to the election period, campaign finance issues and the heavy involvement of military personnel in the electoral process, as well as other concerns about intimidation of the electorate.
After Hun Sen’s speech, the CNRP issued a press release raising the same concerns again. It pointed to the jailing of CNRP leaders over the last year, the exiling of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and discriminatory campaign advertising practices.
Director of Nicfec Sam Kuntheamy said the assessment released by the Situation Room coalition had been fair and had noted both the strong and weak points of the elections. He said any recommendations were meant only to help improve the NEC’s future work.
“We raised some minor weak points based on our concrete observations, but we did not mean to disturb the election procedures,” Kuntheamy said, denying the group had an anti-government agenda. “When they do well, we praise them; it’s nothing more than that.”
However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan doubled down on Hun Sen’s remarks, and described the Situation Room’s assessment of the elections as wrong. He called on them to file complaints with the NEC or authorities if they had proof to back their complaints.
“If there are irregularities found, they should file a complaint, and if they do not complain it means that it did not happen,” Eysan said.
Hun Sen in his speech also once again raised the prospect of renewed civil war in Cambodia, explaining that he was raising the issue because some people had claimed no one had the weapons to fight back in any war against his government’s military.
Reckless use of the right to freedom of expression could also lead to war, he warned. He went on to tell the audience about a Facebook user who he said had posted false news that he had died in a plane crash while travelling back from Vietnam last week.
“They come out and wish me dead. Is this still freedom of expression?” he said, explaining that such actions would be met with either legal action or, in extreme cases, conflict.
Cham Bunteth, a political commentator, said given the often violent history of change in Cambodia – from the civil war exacerbated by Lon Nol’s seizure of power in 1970, to the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 victory and its 1979 ouster – any end to Hun Sen’s power could indeed involve conflict.
Bunteth said the potential for conflict would only be aggravated by insults against Hun Sen, especially by Rainsy, the former opposition leader, who from Paris frequently posts videos and missives about the premier’s past ties to the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam.
“That could lead to potential for war and risk of conflict and even lead to oppression from the government,” Bunteth said.