Prime Minister Hun Sen used the occasion of the Islamic New Year on Wednesday to warn the country’s Cham Muslims that a change in government could lead to widespread slaughter and persecution of Muslims, like under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
In his second recent statement seemingly comparing the opposition CNRP to the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Hun Sen said in a message posted to his personal Facebook page that his government saved the nation’s Cham Muslims, while an unnamed political party might lead them into disaster.
“The government has always supported and promoted the rights of religious freedom, rights of equal employments and rights of participation in all forms of social affairs to all Cambodian Muslims in the country,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote in a message in English and Khmer.
“We all remember well from the ‘Khmer Rouge’s Propaganda of Revolutionary Changes’ more than 30 years ago, which resulted in an almost complete disappearance of Cambodian Muslims from the country,” he added.
“At this moment, all Cambodian Muslim brothers and sisters should again be aware of inciting propaganda from a political party to galvanize the change…similar to the Khmer Rouge’s Propaganda in the past.”
Mr. Hun Sen said that the country’s Cham Muslims should look at the destruction that has swept countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt since the advent of the Arab Spring, which began with small groups protesting for democracy.
“For sure, it has changed from rich to poor, from having mosques to no mosque, from having school to no schools, from having a home to homeless by living in tents along the border camps and running from war almost every day with misery,” he wrote.
“We don’t need these types of changes in our country. I hope the Cambodian Muslims will pay more attention on this propaganda within your own community.”
The Chams were subject to widespread mass killings and violent forced integrations under the Khmer Rouge regime. Mr. Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge army, was accused by Human Rights Watch in a report released earlier this year of being actively involved in the massacre of Chams in Kompong Cham province in 1975 after they launched a violent rebellion on Koh Phal island there.
Mr. Hun Sen was deputy commander of Battalion 55 in Sector 21 of the Khmer Rouge’s Eastern Zone, which has been accused of carrying out the massacre, but the prime minister and those close to him have always denied his involvement.
Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Chams have been afforded a large degree of religious freedom by the CPP and its predecessors. With Muslim leaders across the nation accordingly close to the ruling party, the vote of the country’s Cham Muslims—with an estimated population of about 400,000—has long been considered a safe bet for the CPP.
Yet the CNRP has been working on prying away that support, tapping into dissatisfaction among some Chams on issues such as economic development and direct election of religious leaders.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said the CNRP has targeted younger Chams who have studied in more developed countries such as Malaysia before returning to their home communities and becoming disillusioned with the lack of progress.
Mam Slesman, a 48-year-old Cham Muslim from Kompong Cham, said a growing number of people in his community are becoming more receptive to the CNRP’s appeals for support, even if they remain grateful to the CPP for their religious freedoms.
“We want to change because we cannot have the same leaders again and again. We want to see new leaders who can bring new ideas to develop the country,” he said.
“We have seen that the government has helped our Cham community, but it is not enough for us, because it shows that they promote some Cham people to be government officials, but they still have no power to make decisions for their community,” Mr. Slesman said.
“Our people will not hold a revolution like in the Middle East because we are a different sect, and we do not want war,” he added. “We will change through election.”
However, the country’s top Islamic religious leader, Grand Mufti Sos Kimri, said he was satisfied with what Mr. Hun Sen had done for the country and suggested that the country’s Muslims should not trivialize the government’s accomplishments.
“With today’s Hun Sen regime leading on from the liberation regime, our people have enough freedoms and rights and we can walk freely under democracy,” Mr. Kimri said. “Nowadays, we have nothing to worry about.
“He has given rights to Cham children, including the right to wear [Islamic religious] headwear in school, wear them even when they take pictures for passports, and he provides a salary for 1,500 Cham teachers,” he added.
The grand mufti said he would be happy to see a government led by Mr. Hun Sen continue into the future rather than risk a new government—whatever its promises are.
“If we compare this to changing a car tire, we change one if it is broken or does not work. If it is already in good shape, why change it? If we change it and we get a bad one, there could be problems,” Mr. Kimri said.
Last week, Mr. Hun Sen compared land reform policies espoused by Mr. Rainsy to those enacted by Pol Pot after the Khmer Rouge came to power, suggesting they would lead to renewed civil war.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said he was confused as to why Mr. Hun Sen continued to compare the opposition party to the totalitarian communist regime.
“I do not understand, because the CNRP’s policies have never had such concepts, as we have studied and understood development from the West,” he said. “The West has pointed a way for the development of society, economics, politics and change through peace and nonviolence.”
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