Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the public to maintain tolerance and refrain from discriminating against the followers of Khem Veasna, an outspoken political party leader who recently pronounced himself “universe protecting brahma” and mobilised them at his sprawling farm at Kulen Mountain to escape “doomsday”.
Hun Sen’s appeal came as Veasna’s followers, who hailed from the capital and various provinces, were about to start their return journey on the authorities’ order.
Veasna is currently president of the League for Democracy Party (LDP). His “doomsday” claims attracted thousands of his supporters, not only within the country but also many others who have been working abroad, notably in South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of two flyovers in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said Veasna’s call caused strife within families and arguments that had forced friends and relatives apart over his claims.
The premier noted that some had even sold valuable property to be able to travel from a distance to the farm near Kulen.
“I appeal to you all to let forbearance and forgiveness guide all families who had a row between members regarding Khem Veasna’s call to his followers to attend the reunion at his farm. And I call on people in the community to refrain from discriminating against [his followers] because in truth they are victims that have been cheated,” Hun Sen said.
Veasna’s doomsday had been the topic of the week among Cambodian social media users, most of whom were criticising what sounded like unrealistic and even deranged beliefs and noting similarities to cults in the past making similar claims whose activities took a violent turn in other places.
Siem Reap provincial authorities warned Veasna they would take action should he continue the gathering past the weekend.
On his declared doomsday of August 30, Veasna changed his tune from predicting the apocalypse to publicly insulting and taunting Hun Sen while declaring that the prime minister could never take any action against his group.
While his supporters have called for legal action against Veasna for his defamatory insults, Hun Sen said he viewed the situation differently.
He said he felt that Veasna was trying to provoke the authorities into taking action against him so that he could gain politically by it, as politics may be the only career path left for someone in his predicament.
“I issued an order asking for maximum restraint and let them know that what Khem Veasna is trying to do is provoke the government into using force against his group. He’s already making a career move from faith to politics. I asked those loyal to me to please not fall into Veasna’s trap. Last night I called on the authorities to stay vigilant,” he said.
The prime minister said that although he was annoyed by Veasna’s insults, at least he hadn’t tried calling for a military coup or tried to get the military to turn its guns on the government or called on foreign donors to cut aid to Cambodia.
“I cannot say that he has mental problems or that he’s crazy. I cannot judge matters like this. But at least Veasna has never appealed to the public to help him topple the government, unlike some other people. He did not call on the armed forces to turn their guns around and aim them at their own government,” he said.
Hun Sen recalled the CNRP protests that took place in the aftermath of the 2013 election, saying that those protests began at 3am with a group of opposition activists chanting that it was a “good time” to take over the government.
Without naming his chief political rivals of past years and perhaps still today, he said that one politician had on video unambiguously called for the military to attack the government, by way of reference to Sam Rainsy.
Turning to Sokha’s situation, he stated that the other is currently undergoing a trial in court without elaborating further.
Hun Sen also called on Siem Reap provincial authorities to prevent Veasna’s group from possibly making an attempt at occupying state land illegally, or they would face legal action themselves.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Veasna’s call to his supporters had caused serious social upheaval, emotional disturbances and economic damage to some of his followers, especially those who so desperately believed in him that they decided to abandon their lucrative and much-sought after employment positions abroad.
He said the government should keep an eye on those who promote these superstitions for their own gain as it could cause social disorder.
“It is a social problem that could have consequences in the future, although it is not something about politics in the normal sense. The government should not ignore this, but take specific targeted actions against it,” Phea said.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the ministry had instructed Siem Reap provincial authorities to peacefully educate the gathering of people in order to make them understand the world was not ending and they can go back home.
Sopheak said that Veasna’s presidency of LDP was still an open question until the party provided proof from doctors willing to certify that he is not mentally ill or unstable, because those who have such afflictions cannot lead parties.
“We are looking into this matter. But we will see if there are any certification letters from hospitals about his situation on file anywhere and, if so, determine whether they are active concerns or whether he continues to have those mental health problems. The law on political parties has some articles that talk about these issues,” Sopheak said.
LDP had taken part in a few national elections but have yet to win any seats, and did not take part in the June 5 commune council elections.