Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday called on opposition leader Kem Sokha to step down and encouraged Cambodians to protest against him en masse unless he apologizes for comments he made apparently denying that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for some of its worst crimes.
With the July 28 national election fast approaching, the government last week released an audio recording of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president saying that Vietnam had “staged” the detention and torture of thousands of people at the notorious Khmer Rouge-era prison, Tuol Sleng. Had the Khmer Rouge actually carried out those crimes, Mr. Sokha can be heard saying, they would have destroyed the evidence before fleeing Phnom Penh in 1979 ahead of the advancing Vietnamese.
Mr. Sokha has denied making such claims and in turn accused the government of doctoring his words to place them out of context.
But at a pagoda inauguration in Kompong Cham province on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen said it was time for the CNRP leader to step aside.
“One person is destroying the whole party. If I were him, I would resign from my position,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“If this person does not make a public apology, a huge national demonstration will take place… because he is not taking responsibility for what he said,” the prime minister added.
“This is not a demonstration against a political party or a politician, but one person. And the demonstration will probably happen not only in Phnom Penh. It is now waiting for word from Chum Mey,” he said.
Mr. Mey is one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison and now heads the Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea, an advocacy group for Khmer Rouge victims. Along with fellow Tuol Sleng survivor Bou Meng, Mr. Mey on Saturday demanded that Kem Sokha apologize to them in person within 10 days or face a demonstration in front of his party’s offices.
Mr. Hun Sen suggested Thursday that the protest wait until Mr. Sokha, who left for the U.S. on Wednesday, returns to Cambodia.
And despite calling for a protest much larger than what Mr. Mey had suggested, the prime minister insisted that the CPP was not behind the idea.
“Please do not link it to me, to the CPP or to government leaders. This is your dispute with all Cambodian people,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I would like to make a call that if any demonstration takes place it should be a peaceful demonstration with public order and without violence. I cannot prevent this demonstration, because it is the people’s right.”
It will not be the first time that Mr. Hun Sen has added his weight to a protest.
In 2003, Mr. Hun Sen spurred on a public protest when he relayed a false rumor, attributed to a Thai actress, in which she allegedly claimed Thai ownership of Angkor Wat. Shortly after the prime minister’s comments were broadcast, mobs burned down the Thai Embassy and about a dozen major Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh, inflicting $52 million in damage during a six-hour rampage that went unchecked by authorities.
Mr. Hun Sen also rejected Mr. Sokha’s claim that his comments on Tuol Sleng had been edited by the government.
“How can anyone cut and make up these words? Even the people in Hollywood cannot cut such words,” Mr. Hun Sen said, in turn challenging Mr. Sokha to edit some of his own words.
“Let my words be edited that I insult the people: I am the Khmer Rouge; I am a leader of murderers. Can you edit that?” Mr. Hun Sen said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Meng, another Tuol Sleng survivor, said he was satisfied with Mr. Sokha’s explanation of his comments on the prison.
But Mr. Mey said Thursday that he was still waiting for an apology and would give Mr. Sokha the promised 10 days to follow through.
“If I call for a demonstration, there will be about 20,000 people,” he warned. “It will all end if Mr. Sokha just apologizes and comes here [to Tuol Sleng] to light incense sticks. Based on Cambodian practice, we will forgive those who accept their mistakes and apologize.”
Mr. Sokha could not be reached for comment Thursday. On Wednesday, he said he would not apologize for claims he did not make.
Son Chhay, a lawmaker for the opposition SRP and a CNRP candidate in the upcoming national election, said he was not aware of any change in Mr. Sokha’s position.
“He believes he didn’t say that thing,” Mr. Chhay said. “So he said how can you apologize if he didn’t do it?”
As for the prime minister’s suggestion that Mr. Sokha step down and his fanning the flames for a protest, Mr. Chhay declined to comment.
“I don’t think we want to go on with that because we don’t want to play his games,” he said.
Mr. Chhay confirmed that Mr. Sokha had left for the U.S. on Wednesday to meet with Cambodian communities there and would be back in three or four days. He said the trip had been planned for about a month.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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