Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday threatened to unleash war on the opposition party if he loses patience with their campaign for the June 4 commune council elections, saying it did not matter that his rivals were unarmed and that his party would burn their homes down.
Speaking at a conference for Cambodia’s Christian community in Phnom Penh, and breaking with his custom of not campaigning during the official pre-election period, Hun Sen called on opposition leader Kem Sokha to “calm down” his party or risk a one-sided war.
“Some people say they do not have any guns so war could not happen, but I want to remind you that even if there are no guns, war could still happen,” Hun Sen said, accusing the opposition of cynically exploiting his party’s historically close ties to Vietnam.
“Your insults of ‘traitor’, your words . . . of disdain for the CPP that it ran out of people for its rallies, so it brings Vietnamese to the rallies – these are words that can cause war if the CPP cannot be patient anymore and goes and burns your homes down.”
Hun Sen appeared to be referring to a Facebook user who earlier this week posted a video to her profile accusing the Cambodian People’s Party of padding its rallies with Vietnamese citizens because one campaigner’s motorbike bore the country’s licence plates.
The premier also said in his speech that if his warnings were heeded, he would still prefer to take the Cambodia National Rescue Party on at the ballot box in the June 4 commune elections instead of in a war.
“The CPP is patient in order to ensure stability – but if the party was not patient and especially if Prime Minister Hun Sen was not patient – it would not take hours [to defeat the CNRP]. But we need to compete on votes, since that’s better,” he said.
Opposition parties have during past elections used the CPP’s historical ties to Vietnam, which installed the ruling party in power in 1979 and defended it militarily during the civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, as fodder for easy votes at elections.
Hun Sen is a fluent speaker of Vietnamese and has often said Vietnam should be appreciated for overthrowing Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in 1979. But he has also denied being under the thumb of Cambodia’s historical enemy, and has vigorously defended his party’s independence.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said by telephone that the opposition, which says it is aiming for almost two-thirds of the vote on June 4, had at no point during the campaign brought up Vietnam and had been focusing on promoting its policies.
“The past is past. Let’s talk about the present. Who has said that? No one,” Sovann said, dismissing Hun Sen’s surprise speech as a last-ditch effort to avoid a large defeat in the first independently run election in Cambodia after years of poor government.
“Let him say whatever he wants,” the spokesman added. “My only response is that we would like to appeal to all of the Cambodian people to go to the polls on the 4th of June, 2017, and vote for the CNRP, and for the future of our nation and our people.”
Sokha, the opposition leader, has been travelling around the country’s 24 provinces since the official campaign opened last weekend, mainly promoting his party’s policy to provide each of Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes with $500,000 a year to develop their own areas.
On Wednesday, in Pailin province, a former Khmer Rouge bastion that carried on its fight against the Phnom Penh government until September 1996, and today remains home to many war-weary veterans, Sokha also told voters not to be scared by the CPP’s threats.
“Believe me, they would not dare start a war each one of them is a millionaire,” Sokha said of the CPP. He argued that the ruling party’s officials had too much to lose and would not fight. “In the previous times, they could go into the forests, but now they cannot.”
“There will not be a war. Don’t believe it.”
But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said by telephone that he believed Hun Sen’s speech had betrayed his concerns about what might happen on June 4 – and at the national election in July 2018.
“He is more aggressive at this time because he sees the losses coming. He sees the manner of the Cambodian people now. They are not really afraid of voting for the opposition party anymore. That’s why he is using intimidation and fear,” Buntenh said.
“In the elections of the past five terms, he did not see any of the clear signals of a loss, so that’s why he did not speak during the campaigns. Now the signals of a loss are bigger than at the past elections. The Cambodian people know this election is in their hands.”
“The prime minister fears a loss. I don’t have anything more to say than that: He is fearing a loss.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA