As the government comes under continued pressure to normalise relations with the opposition, Prime Minister Hun Sen has lashed out at the diplomatic community for trying to use aid money to leverage influence on internal matters.
In recent weeks, a revolving door of foreign ambassadors have followed up statements calling for the political and legal impasse to be resolved by visiting Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha at the party’s headquarters, where he has remained hunkered down since May.
At a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the Customs and Excise Department yesterday, Hun Sen singled out Japanese Ambassador Yuji Kumamaru – who has not visited Sokha nor released any public statements critical of the government – for raising concerns about the ongoing voter registration process.
He said Kumamaru should not use the threat of withdrawing Japanese funding to try and influence the judicial processes against opposition members and members of civil society.
“I told you before, Hun Sen cannot be easily pressured,” he said. “Therefore, the Japanese ambassador, please don’t express concerns over the registration failing because of just a few people.”
He added that if donor countries withdrew their financial assistance he would release funds from the national budget to make up the deficit.
“Please, don’t speak much if you want to assist Cambodia,” he added. “Cambodia dares to play [its cards] and is not afraid to lose.”
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He then shifted his focus to other diplomats, specifically mentioning the European Union, asking them to “reform” themselves and attempt to get accurate information about the political situation in the country.
“Europe has always received unclear information, that’s why Europe is having a crisis,” he added in an apparent reference to the UK’s “Brexit” referendum.
Reacting to the premier’s comments, Kumamaru said in a statement that the embassy had dialogues with the government, National Election Committee (NEC) and political parties about the voter registration process, and sent messages that it was important to create a “favorable political environment” to ensure free and fair elections.
“Japan also conveyed our views that we would like to see mutual trust and dialogue between the ruling and opposition parties be swiftly restored, and a political environment be re-created that safeguards opposition parties and civil societies performing freely and normally,” he said.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said he was unaware if the Japanese Embassy had any reservations about the voter registration process but that it was proceeding smoothly.
“So far, there is no obstacle in the registration process and we knew the EU had issued a statement concerning the political situation, but we are working on the technical aspects of the elections, not political issues,” Puthea said.
The NEC is in the process of registering Cambodia’s 9.6 million eligible voters, with financial support from Japan and the EU, and is expected to complete the process next February, a few months shy of the 2017 commune elections.
Referring to Hun Sen’s outburst yesterday, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the diplomatic support Sokha was receiving was an irritant to the prime minister.
“It wouldn’t surprise me that this parade of diplomats at the CNRP headquarters has angered Hun Sen and caused him to lash out in speeches,” he said.
Despite his anger at the recent international condemnation, Hun Sen was astute when it came to sifting through rhetoric aimed at him by foreign governments and diplomats, Strangio said, and knew that countries like Japan and the US wanted to maintain relationships with Cambodia.
“This knowledge allows him to lash out at countries, like Japan, with a fair bit of security in the knowledge that they would continue to engage with his government to achieve those wider objectives.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the prime minister’s comments boiled down to “foreigners” using a personal issue, referring to Sokha, to affect the voting process and that Hun Sen would not allow that.
“We do not want foreigners to put pressure on us by using the NEC,” he said. “If they use it as a scapegoat to put pressure on politics, then that is unacceptable.”