Prime Minister Hun Sen has called for legal action against those who “twist” the truth to malign the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, taking aim at the nation’s political analysts and commentators, with one of its most prominent, Ou Virak, the first in the crosshairs.
The threat, which was posted on the premier’s Facebook page yesterday, said the CPP respected individuals’ right to expression and had tolerated defamation in the past, but the party would now “preserve its right to defend its honour and dignity” if people attempted to smear it in public, singling out pundits.
“All of you have rights, but please do not forget that we also have rights like you,” the post reads. “This time, we are preparing complaints against individuals who have been destroying the honour and dignity of the Cambodian People’s Party.”
A complaint filed yesterday with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, alleges that Virak, in an interview with Radio Free Asia on April 24, labelled the “fake affair” involving CNRP acting president Kem Sokha and salon worker Khom Chandaraty a CPP strategy to put pressure on Sokha – a claim that Eysan said was an “intentional exaggeration” and meant to tarnish the party’s reputation.
The complaint charges him with violating article 305 of the criminal code and demands damages of 400 million riel, or $100,000.
Eysan yesterday confirmed that Virak was the first to face criminal action for defamation by the CPP, adding that there were others who could be sued but declined to name them.
“He [Virak] said that the Cambodian People’s Party was an organiser of the sexual scandal between Kem Sokha and Srey Mom [Khom Chandaraty],” Eysan said. “If we do not sue, it would mean what he said was correct.”
However, Virak told the Post he did not allege that the government was behind the scandal, and only questioned why the authorities weren’t investigating whether the leaked conversations purportedly between Sokha and Chandaraty were taped illegally.
“There are a lot of reasons to question what is going on,” he said. “I questioned the selection of this investigation and the fact that they are going after Kem Sokha, and said the ruling party was going after Sokha’s finances.”
He added that Hun Sen’s diktat would create an “atmosphere of fear” and self-censorship, thereby derailing the democratic process in the country.
Immediately after Virak revealed details of the suit, the US Embassy posted a message supporting the political observer including a quote from US President Barack Obama about the value of civil society and photos featuring Virak with Ambassador William Heidt and Secretary of State John Kerry.
“#Cambodia is blessed with a strong and vibrant civil society, led by dedicated men and women from organizations such as ADHOC-Cambodia, LICADHO, The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), and the Future Forum, founded by Virak OU,” the post said.
“The United States strongly supports Cambodian civil society, including at the highest levels of government… Civil society plays an essential role in promoting human rights, good governance, and universal freedoms.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that the CPP had cracked down on opposition at the mid-point of previous electoral cycles. However, he added, this time around, it was stemming from a growing insecurity among the ruling party.
“In 2009 and 2010, it was almost like they were toying with the opposition,” Strangio said. “Now you get a feeling that the CPP is taking these threats more seriously.”
Human Rights Watch’s Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson said it wasn’t surprising that Hun Sen was going after Virak, but it also signaled that the prime minister could extend this to non-government organisations.
“The difference now is that he’s also taking on NGOs that have long been thorns in his side,” Robertson said. “Don’t be surprised if we see the government trotting out LANGO [the recently passed Law on Associations and NGOs] to go after some NGO registrations next.”
Additional reporting by Bun Sengkong