Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an oblique warning in a speech to garment workers yesterday, noting that there could be no elections in a “chaotic country” – an apparent reference to the protests foreshadowed by the newly announced Cambodia National Rescue Movement.
Speaking to 16,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district, Hun Sen said Cambodia had earned peace with great difficulty, but warned it could be lost easily – something he vowed not to let happen.
“We will not permit anyone to destroy it. No matter if you are rebels in the forest or rebels in the city,” he said.
Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party has repeatedly equated its now-dissolved political opposition to “rebels” in the past. In November, the Supreme Court summarily disbanded the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the CPP’s only legitimate competitor – accusing it of fomenting “revolution”. The CNRP’s president, Kem Sokha, was arrested on widely decried charges of “treason” in September.
Earlier this week, former CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua announced the creation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement as a mechanism for organising protests against the current political situation.
Hun Sen, however, seemed to interpret the announcement as tantamount to a threat of war.
“You cannot run an election with artillery shells and grenades, and you also cannot run an election in a chaotic country,” he said.
“If you want democracy, you first need to think about peace, political stability, security and high social order,” he added.
“Therefore, to continue working and earning income . . . the priority is to jointly protect peace and political stability,” he continued, calling on workers to side with the government.
Rainsy, a dual citizen, has lived in France in self-imposed exile since 2015 in a bid to avoid a slew of politically tinged convictions. Hun Sen appeared to take a jab at his absence yesterday, saying that average Cambodians won’t be able to escape chaos.
“We have no more nationalities to hide abroad, we have only one nationality. The people cannot afford that,” he said.
Heng Ratana, the director of Cambodia’s demining agency and an increasingly hardline CPP voice, also chimed in on Facebook yesterday.
“Is it the National Rescue Movement or the National Chaos Movement?” he asked in a post yesterday.
Ratana went on to outline five stages of “colour revolution”, saying that the “anti-government” forces are in the fourth stage, fomenting “social and political chaos”, and warned the fifth stage is “a take over of power”.
The opposition has long professed its commitment to nonviolence, and peaceful demonstrations would not qualify as a reason to cancel elections, according to Yoeurng Sotheara, legal officer at election watchdog Comfrel.
“By law, [the prime minister] has the authority to cancel the election,” Sotheara said, adding it must be “delayed or rescheduled”. However, he continued, there must be a “good reason”, such as “serious violence” or a “disturbance to the administration of the [National Election Committee]”.
“I don’t think a peaceful demonstration should be a cause or reason to delay the election,” he said.
Rainsy reiterated yesterday that he was only calling for peaceful protests, asking “all Cambodians, both protesters and the armed forces, to absolutely avoid using violence in any form”, and adding that any violence would originate with Hun Sen.
Rainsy also said that without the CNRP, Hun Sen might as well cancel the election. “It would be better to cancel such an election because it would be illegitimate, meaningless and useless,” he wrote in an email, proposing elections be postponed until they “meet minimum international standards”.
Rainsy, meanwhile, said he would return to the US for the official “proclamation” of the CNRM on January 28.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Hun Sen’s appeal to garment workers appeared to be a strategy to win over traditional supporters of the CNRP.
“Our PM’s statements appear to show he is facing an uphill struggle to win the hearts and minds of opposition supporters to secure a big win as planned in the coming election. A win with a small majority would mean defeat considering all measures taken against the opposition,” he said.