Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, warned Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy on Saturday against mistreating him if the opposition one day assumes power.
The premier made the remarks in front of hundreds of Cambodian migrant workers during a reception hosted with Rainsy in Kuala Lumpur to promote the new “culture of dialogue” between the pair.
“Now I am still prime minister; we all can live together. But suppose one day His Excellency Sam Rainsy becomes prime minister . . . and at that time His Exellency does not allow me to live and he ill-treats me. Because I am ill-treated, there will be forces [loyal to me] that will fight back. Then His Excellency cannot live in peace,” he said.
The remarks seemed to mark a rare acknowledgement from Hun Sen – who has held office for more than 30 years – that the opposition may one day assume power.
Political analyst Chea Vannath said the comments are “very surprising”.
“I feel that he is becoming more realistic about the ongoing change [and the idea that] he won’t stay in power forever,” she said.
In 2007, Hun Sen, who was just 33 when he was appointed prime minister, announced that he planned to hold power until 90 if people continued to vote for him. But ahead of the 2013 national election, he revised that target, saying he wished to remain in power until 74.
In the election, the opposition gained considerable support, and an almost year-long political deadlock ensued after the CPP announced its disputed victory.
Since a deal was struck in July, Rainsy and Hun Sen have been promoting a “culture of dialogue” between the two parties.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the premier’s comments were merely an effort to “explain the opposite side of that culture”.
“It was just an example . . . [that] for there to be a culture of partnership, they must respect each other,” he explained.
Siphan added that Hun Sen was not considering the possibility of losing power. “The nation still needs him”, he said.
Rainsy could not be reached for comment yesterday, while party spokesman Yem Poharith said that the CNRP was looking for reform, not revenge.
“The principle of the CNRP is not revenge, but all issues such as the system of governance, corruption, [and] economic land concessions . . . must be reformed,” he said.
Hun Sen told migrant workers on Saturday that the “culture of dialogue” would help leaders to create more jobs for people within Cambodia so that there would be less need for migration.
Thousands of Cambodians, unable to find jobs at home or dissatisfied by the Kingdom’s low wages, currently work in Malaysia, but many have found themselves subjected to long hours, unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions and even abuse.
One such worker, 32-year-old Uon Eang Leng, who attended Saturday’s meeting, said she was both “happy and surprised” by the meeting, and the promises of jobs at home.
“I want to return to Cambodia but I don’t know what to do [because] they pay small salaries,” she said. “Goods are expensive but the salary is small.”
Eang Leng said that she was pleased to see the country’s leaders “unite to make the country progress”.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour department at the Community Legal Education Center, said “dialogue is good”, especially if it produces concrete results.
He explained that, ahead of ASEAN integration, the two leaders should work on improving “national benefits”, including social land concessions, vocational training and greater education, so that Cambodians can profit from living at home.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY