Prime Minister Ramps Up Threat Against Kem Sokha

Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his attack on CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha on Thursday, threatening to arrest him and deploy the military if he leads a protest to demand the release of jailed opposition official Meach Sovannara.

Mr. Hun Sen on Wednesday threatened “legal action” against Mr. Sokha over a speech delivered in the U.S. last week, which the prime minister characterized as a confession of his intent to overthrow the government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Thursday morning ahead of a special session to pass two new election laws. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Thursday morning ahead of a special session to pass two new election laws. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Speaking in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen seized on a separate part of Mr. Sokha’s speech, slamming his remarks that he could not accept the continued imprisonment of Mr. Sovannara.

“You said ‘I can’t accept,’” the prime minister said. “I want to ask you the question: If Mr. Meach Sovannara cannot get out of jail, what are you going to do after the [Khmer] New Year? Will you lead people into the streets or what?”

“The mixed ‘elements’ will be waiting for you. [To] the military and the national police, be prepared,” the prime minister continued. “Paint some beautiful colors on [your] handcuffs.”

Mr. Hun Sen then resumed his line of assault on Mr. Sokha from Wednesday, again accusing the opposition leader of admitting he tried to topple the government through the CNRP’s demonstrations after the 2013 election.

“Now, I want to ask you: What are you preparing to do, because you have been found guilty of leading the toppling of a legitimate government?” Mr. Hun Sen said. “What will you do? Lead a demonstration to liberate the prisoner, or what else will you do?”

The prime minister said he could not intervene in Mr. Sovannara’s court case as a member of the executive branch of the government, but noted that his role did allow him to deploy the armed forces against Mr. Sokha.

“I want to inform you that the election law or the Law on the Organization of the NEC are not relevant to the court procedures and the people found guilty in criminal cases occurring on July 15, 2014,” he said.

“If you dare to do something, I also dare to respond to you. Please, try to take a risk. This is state administration, and don’t talk about the prime minister controlling the armed forces,” he said. “What I can’t control is the courts, the Assembly, the Senate, the Constitutional Council, but I can control the armed forces.”

Mr. Hun Sen also broke from months of denials that he had a role in ordering the arrests of seven CNRP lawmakers-elect in the days after a violent protest at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on July 15 last year.

He revealed that he held a meeting that night to discuss what to do about the protest, and had decided only to arrest those who were actually present at the demonstration and not Mr. Sokha, who was at the time the acting president of the CNRP.

“There would have been the arrest of Mr. Kem Sokha on the evening of July 15. His and her excellencies, and deputy prime ministers had a meeting at my home at 5 p.m. [on that day] and almost made a decision to arrest Kem Sokha at that time,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

“But I myself said: We must be clear and our mission is only with those standing in the actual battle, and Kem Sokha was not at that battle,” he said.

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said that Mr. Sokha, who is still in the U.S., was not concerned about Mr. Hun Sen’s threats to arrest or imprison him, as the opposition only ever operates according to the law.

“There are no problems at all, as we have done everything based on the culture of dialogue,” Mr. Ponhearith said. “We do not have a problem with this.”

In an interview on Radio Free Asia on Wednesday night, Mr. Sokha also denied Mr. Hun Sen’s claims that his speech in the U.S.—in which he apologized for a failure to achieve complete change—was an admission that the CNRP tried to topple the government.

“I didn’t say the word ‘topple,’ and never thought about that. Maybe someone interpreted it for him confusingly,” Mr. Sokha said, before calling on the prime minister to listen to the recording of his speech again.

“In the recording…I did not use the word ‘topple’ and I also denied that the CNRP led by myself and Sam Rainsy has a policy to topple and use violence.”

Mr. Sokha also accused Mr. Hun Sen of attempting to divide him and Mr. Rainsy—whose rival parties merged into the CNRP in July 2012—by focusing on him as the mastermind of “toppling” the government.

“It’s not ‘the Kem Sokha issue;’ all the issues and the demonstrations were not led [only] by Kem Sokha. The CNRP leaders are Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy,” he said.

Yet Mr. Hun Sen in his speech Thursday slammed Mr. Sokha’s defense that he never used the word “topple” and wanted electoral change, reminding the deputy opposition leader that the CNRP’s protests began in the months after the July 2013 national election.

“It did not mean that you wanted change through an election,” Mr. Hun Sen said of Mr. Sokha’s speech. “You held the demonstrations after the election.

“All of you still remember this: ‘Hun Sen, step down, Hun Sen, step down,’” he said, repeating a popular chant from the CNRP’s protests. “You wanted to say change but your word ‘change’ meant toppling.”

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