As the July general election approaches, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would no longer tolerate opponents’ attacks, saying his ruling party would respond with legal action.

Hun Sen said that in recent days, some political parties had stepped up their attacks against the CPP as if they wanted to become its “enemies”.

Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a road upgrade project in Kampong Cham province on January 9, the premier suggested that “ethical” parties campaign on their own political platform rather than attacking their rivals.

“If you keep attacking my party, I reserve the rights to defend it – through the legal route if necessary.

“You recently held a meeting in Siem Reap, and what did you do? You also held a meeting in Kampong Cham province’s Cheung Prey district. You need to understand that there will be consequences for thinking you can do whatever you want,” he warned, without naming the party that he said used the forums to attack the CPP.

“If you accuse me of pursuing unnecessary legal action – for whatever reason – I must ask you a question: What do you prefer? Stick? I want to make it clear to you all that there are only two options.

“I warn you now that I will not let you continue to accuse us of theft. You must end this culture of becoming obstinate at every election result,” he said in reference to the accusations of vote buying previously levelled by opposition parties.

Hun Sen, who is the CPP president, said the party will not accept such accusations. Any party that makes such a claim will be sued, from the lowest court to the highest. Such claims are not an example of freedom of expression, but merely an attack on the CPP, he said.

He added that if opposition parties regard such claims as freedom of expression, he would respond in kind, citing as an example a march by CPP supporters to the homes of the opposition leaders. And if that happened, he said it should not be seen as a threat.

Though Hun Sen did not initially specify who he was referring to, he later mentioned Kong Korm, a former CPP member in the 1980s and now serves as a senior adviser to the Candlelight Party (CP).

“You are welcome to test whether or not I would dare to handcuff a traitor. But I assure you that I would stop at nothing to protect the hard-won peace that the Kingdom currently enjoys,” he said.

Reached for comment on Hun Sen’s statements, Korm told The Post that he believed the premier had misinterpreted a recent CP statement.

“We recently used the slogan ‘When drinking water, think about its sources’ and ‘When sheltering under a tree, think about who planted it’,” he said.

Korm explained that these slogans were aimed at reminding people that the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements were the source of the Kingdom’s multi-party democracy.

“We did not say anything that seriously affected the honour of the CPP,” he said.

Asked to respond to Hun Sen’s statement, Korm said: “I will take his advice. We must all live together and avoid immature completion. I will heed his warnings.”

Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said he wants politicians to sit together and bring issues to the table for discussion, especially in the lead-up to an election.

He added that concerns about the electoral process should have been addressed more thoroughly by the National Election Committee (NEC), as this would have helped any potential complaints after the election results are announced.

“We should always try to communicate so that we understand each other’s points of view. If politicians at lower levels find it hard to speak with each other, the leadership should set an example for them,” he continued.

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that as the national election approaches, some politicians appeared to be hoping that cheap insults would go viral and add to their popularity.

“Political competition should be based on policies rather than personal attacks. Politicians should clearly express their policies and ideas to potential voters, rather than trying to tear down their opponents,” he added.

“This applies to the ruling party as well as the opposition. This is the only way that voters will gain an understanding of each side’s platform,” he continued.

Peou said Hun Sen’s warning of legal action was the smartest way of dealing with insulting attacks on the CPP. Resorting to the Kingdom’s judicial branch to resolve issues would illustrate the importance of social order, he added.

“If the CPP did not take their accusers to court, it may encourage some people to believe that there is some truth behind the smears or insults,” he said.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said any individual or group has the right to take action in the case of slander or defamation.

“The leadership of the CPP makes this very clear long before any court case is filed,” he said.

“Competition in politics should not mean using slander, smear campaigns or other illegal activities. Under Cambodia’s proportional representation election system, each party is elected based on the appeal of its platform to the voting public,” he concluded.

Additional reporting by Samban Chandara.