Hun Manet yesterday left for Canada after a week-long trip to the United States that saw his message of “unity” and “national reconciliation” marred by protests, a lawsuit and the alleged assault of a process server by his bodyguards.
The prime minister’s eldest son visited four states – California, Washington, Texas and Massachusetts – during his Khmer New Year tour, enduring protests at every stop along the way.
In Long Beach, California, where the lieutenant general had already been forced to pull out of a parade after an angry backlash from Cambodian-Americans opposed to his father’s regime, any hopes of a smooth trip were quickly dashed after a process server was roughed up by Manet’s bodyguards when he attempted to subpoena their boss on the night of April 9.
The wrongful imprisonment case, reportedly filed at a federal court in Los Angeles the day before, is being brought by the US-based family of Cambodia National Rescue Party official Meach Sovannara, a dual American-Cambodian citizen who was imprisoned last year for “leading an insurrection” after a 2014 anti-government rally at which he was present turned violent.
The action also accuses the Cambodian government, as well as Manet, of wrongdoing, according to reports.
In a Facebook post, process server Paul Hayes, who also operates as a private investigator, claims to have been hospitalised with a bruised spine after being thrown headfirst onto the pavement after attempting to approach Manet outside a restaurant in Long Beach where he was scheduled to host a dinner.
During an interview with the Lowell Sun newspaper, Manet recalled that a person “ran” towards his group through protesters picketing the venue, then “tripped and fell”.
“Even the police were on spot there, there was two officers on spot there, if it was an assault, I think [my bodyguards] would be arrested right away,” Manet said, claiming he only learned of the subpoena later via social media.
President of the Cambodia-America Alliance Touch Vibol, the anti-government group that has organised the protests against Manet, yesterday said they had been in touch with Hayes, who had not yet decided whether to press charges.
Government spokespeople and Manet were not available yesterday. The Long Beach police department did not return a request for comment.
During the interview, Manet presented himself as a peacemaker, casting those protesting his visit as a vocal minority unwilling to engage in reasonable dialogue while extolling Cambodia’s development under his father’s government, which, he claimed, permitted “legal protests” from all parties.
He came prepared to defend himself and the government against claims Sovannara and 14 other activists jailed over the protest were wrongfully imprisoned, showing interviewers pictures of security guards attacked during the fracas on July 15.
“This [was] not a peaceful strike, it was a violent strike. Even the US constitution, the First Amendment does not guarantee that. As a result, [Sovannara] was detained and prosecuted according to the law, so that is the case,” Manet said.
Rights groups have long argued the case against the CNRP activists is overtly political. In a recent legal analysis, Human Rights Watch concluded there was no reasonable evidence to suggest the men were guilty.
Further, the most recent US State Department human rights report, released last week, noted significant concern about the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence and persecution of political opponents.
Manet has been tasked with winning over Cambodia’s diaspora, which is traditionally pro-opposition. Given the protests, he acknowledged the trip was “not a success in terms of unity”. He also criticised the Lowell City Council for voting to not accept a statue offered as part of a co-operation agreement following a backlash from their constituents.
“When you make a diplomatic relation or when you make a commitment in an official capacity, you should not let politics ruin that,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mech Dara