Updated: 6:48am, Friday March 23, 2018
Prime Minister Hun Sen broke into English to tout his newly dubbed policy of “Peace First” in a speech on Thursday, drawing on US President Donald Trump’s motto of “America First”.
Speaking to graduates at the National Institute of Education, the premier said peace is “invaluable” to Cambodia.
“It is similar to Donald Trump saying ‘America First’, but we say ‘Peace First’,” Hun Sen said, saying both slogans in English.
“If there is no peace, nothing can happen. Do not be doubtful, that is it. This is the most significant thing,” he continued.
Hun Sen has often linked peace to his rule, claiming that without him to steer the country, Cambodia would again collapse into anarchy and civil war.
But just as Trump’s “America First” motto has been criticised for its isolationist and xenophobic undertones, many have seen the premier’s invocations of “peace and stability” as a thinly veiled justification for an ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and dissent.
Hun Sen and other ruling party officials have justified the dissolution of the country’s only viable electoral competitor – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – by alleging that it was planning a foreign-backed “colour revolution”.
Since the dissolution, the premier has repeatedly touted peace and stability, while security officials have vowed to defend it at all costs.
Preap Kol, director of Transparency International Cambodia, said that while peace is essential, it should not be invoked to justify rights violations.
“I think it is important that the Government and ruling party ensures social justice, respect for human rights, genuine democracy and free and fair elections without which peace might likely be interrupted,” he said via email.
The “Peace First” declaration wasn’t the first time Hun Sen has shown affinity for President Trump. He has approvingly noted Trump’s attacks on the free press, and at an Asean summit in Vietnam, he told the US leader during a glowing speech that he was “a wonderful president for me”.
In similarly Trump-esque fashion, Hun Sen on Thursday went on to praise himself on achievements of questionable merit.
“Tomorrow our civil servants can get the salary. Our country pays the salary before the end of the month, how many countries over the world do this?” the premier said of this month’s planned Khmer New Year pay advance.
Hun Sen also bragged the government was able to pay teachers more than their civil society counterparts, and claimed Cambodia offers the fifth-highest minimum salary to government employees in Asean.
However, Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said holiday advances were “not particularly unique to Cambodia”, noting they also take place in Vietnam before Tet.
As for coming in fifth in the 10-member bloc, Chanco said state salaries had been “inflated” due to Cambodia’s “patronage” system – in which subordinates must be kept on side – and its “bloated bureaucracy”.