Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday lashed out at “talkative” government spokespeople for landing him “in trouble” during a speech that plumbed Cambodian history, with the premier putting himself in the shoes of a 16th-century usurper, saying he would have killed the king in a pre-emptive strike.
As he addressed the Kingdom’s Grade-A high school graduates at the Peace Palace on Saturday, the premier returned to one of his favourite legends – that of the “peasant king” Sdech Kan, whose statues frequently feature Hun Sen’s visage.
Legend has it that King Srey Sukonthor, who ruled Cambodia in the 16th century, dreamed Sdech Kan would betray him. In Hun Sen’s telling, the king’s advisers wrongly convinced him to kill Sdech Kan, driving Kan, a loyal servant, to mount an army and overthrow the king years later.
Hun Sen, however, also found fault with Sdech Kan’s strategy, noting that although he was tipped off by his sister, he waited for the king’s assassination attempt before he fled. The premier found parallels in the plot points and his own political situation.
“If I were [Sdech Kan], I would [kill] first, would not keep him alive,” he said, noting that the inept officials were “pushing” the king to snuff out Sdech Kan.
Turning to his own officials, Hun Sen instructed “the talkative people [to] stay away from me”. “The spokespeople adding to the problems are not permitted to stay near; if I let them near, every day they bring me problems and I cannot work at all.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who was reprimanded by Hun Sen earlier this year for wrongly suggesting Deputy Prime Minister Bun Chhin would take on all of the late Sok An’s portfolios, said the comments were simply a “reminder”.
“We should be very cautious to give any information and [follow] the right guidelines. We don’t add anything, we don’t [subtract],” Siphan said.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan agreed the comments were a reminder to “be careful”. “The Phnom Penh Post asks questions to make us fall into a trap, so we should be careful,” he said.
Former opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy has previously critiqued Hun Sen’s reverence for Sdech Kan, characterising the latter as a usurper to the throne. Yesterday he warned that “mysticism . . . generally leads political leaders to make silly decisions inevitably precipitating their end”.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson, author of Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy, said Hun Sen’s remarks may refer to recent steps taken against the Cambodia National Rescue Party, given that the opposition was his “main rival for power”.
“One possible interpretation would be that Hun Sen justifies taking preemptive action against the CNRP so as to preclude the possibility that the party takes power by the so-called ‘color revolution’ that the government has accused the CNRP of staging,” she said via email, adding it could also mean he would not wait for a possible opposition victory at the 2018 national election before acting.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that the Sdech Kan narrative was somewhat limiting for Hun Sen, as he was “ultimately overthrown and beheaded” by the previous king’s brother.
According to Hun Sen, Sdech Kan brought peace and prosperity, “but his overthrow was followed by chaos and cycles of civil war that lasted right up until Hun Sen’s own ‘win-win’ policy brought peace in the late 1990s,” Strangio said in an email.
“One could interpret these comments as Hun Sen’s way of letting people know that he will avoid the mistakes of his semi-imaginary predecessor, hence ensuring that his enemies remain marginalized and that peace and prosperity endures.”