Telling a crowd of soldiers that the ruling CPP’s achievements must be “protected”, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday vowed a military crackdown on any election-related protests while wielding a familiar weapon: the threat of civil war should the ruling party lose the upcoming elections.
Dressed in a military uniform and addressing a crowd of 3,000 veterans and active duty officers to commemorate Veterans Day, the premier, a five-star general, delivered some of his most hostile rhetoric in recent weeks, returning to a theme long present during his more than three decades at Cambodia’s helm.
Calling the CPP the “creator of the nation”, the premier savaged the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, saying they have done “nothing for the people”.
He said his party’s achievements must be “protected” at any cost, warning on several occasions during the speech that war would follow should his government be ousted.
“The Cambodian People’s Party must win elections, every election … War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore,” he told the audience on Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island.
The CPP’s grip on the country came under threat during the last national election in 2013, when the CNRP won almost half the popular vote, before alleging voter fraud and taking to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park with mass nonviolent protests. Polling day itself, meanwhile, saw groups of opposition supporters block voters they accused of being Vietnamese from casting a ballot. Anger over the issue sparked a riot in the capital’s Meanchey district.
Hun Sen vowed a swift response to any disturbance this time around. “Remember, in the 2017 and 2018 [elections], if your group does such activities again, the armed forces will crack down immediately. If war happens, let it be,” he said.
“I would like to warn beforehand,” he continued, in an apparent message to the opposition. “Don’t let the 2013 situation happen again, both before the election and after the election. You are meeting to plan to destroy the royal government, but royal government forces are also defending your place too.”
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann declined to respond to the premier’s warning, reiterating instead that the election’s outcome “is the decision of the people, not the ruling party”.
Reached yesterday, analyst Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that the premier’s threats were familiar, though they may carry an “added hint of menace” because of anxiety over the election.
In some ways, Strangio said, the premier was speaking quite accurately about potential chaos following a change of power. Given Cambodia’s lack of independent institutions, any attempt at a transition of power would lead to conflict – though likely not “war”, he said.
“The CPP have created a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Strangio said. “Civil war brings up images of people going to the jungles, but what it more refers to is political instability and fighting between powerful people.”
The PM’s long-time ally and Deputy Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Kun Kim also addressed the crowd yesterday, reinforcing long-running doubts about the military leadership’s neutrality by warning attendees to stay loyal to the CPP.
“We are all supporting our Samdech [Hun Sen],” said the four-star general, who has been described by Human Rights Watch as the premier’s “axe man”.
“We truly support [him], speaking frankly with each other,” he continued, before warning soldiers to “be careful of being struck by lightning”, an apparent reference to the consequences of disloyalty.
The crowd then broke into a chant of support for the prime minster. “We support Samdech . . . Veterans across the country support Samdech as the Cambodian prime minister for this mandate and other mandates, and as president of the veterans association,” Kim continued.
“Some brothers and sisters forgot and believed the propaganda and other tricks and served another party, but now those brothers and sisters have returned to live with Samdech president.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP