Prime Minister Hun Sen ratcheted up his rhetoric against his opponents on Wednesday, hinting that he might deploy military force against any political party that attempts to wrest power away from the Cambodian strong man.
"Some individuals dared to claim that in 2018 we would be crushed because we wouldn't recognize the election results," he said. "They predicted that in 2018 they could win, and if we don't hand over power to them, they will crush us. How can this happen if the troops are in my hand?"
Hun Sen's remarks during Wednesday's commencement exercise at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh came as he and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) are pushing new rules through parliament that would give the government vast power over political parties.
National elections in Cambodia are scheduled for 2018, while local commune elections will be held in June of this year.
Among the amendments to Cambodia's law on political parties that Hun Sen and the CPP are seeking is one that would bar anyone convicted in Cambodian courts from holding a political party's top office.
The "culprit law" would also dissolve any party whose president is convicted of a crime and would enable the government to seize the party's property.
Cambodian courts are notorious for their lack of independence. Opposition politicians often find themselves before Hun Sen's pliant courts on various charges.
If the changes are approved by the Cambodian Senate and signed by Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni, as expected, the amendments would also give the Cambodian Supreme Court the power to dissolve a party caught committing a list of vague offenses. The Interior Ministry would also be empowered to indefinitely suspend a party for similarly vague reasons.
Transition of power
During his remarks, Hun Sen also took a swipe at Sam Rainsy, who was president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) until he resigned in an effort to preserve the CNRP.
"You declare the results now while the election has yet to be held, and then you keep talking about winning and change," he said. "Yes, you can change. Change from staying freely outside to being in jail!"
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008. In October, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country.
In December 2016, Sam Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page: "In 2018, the CNRP will form a new and legitimate government, and what will remain from Hun Sen's CPP will just be a bunch of rebels who will be crushed by the legitimate government commanding the national armed forces with the support of the international community on the basis of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements."
The agreements ended the Cambodia-Vietnam War and established modern Cambodia after years of rule by the bloody Khmer Rouge and an occupation by Vietnam.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA that the CNRP doesn't want a war, but a peaceful transition of power.
"If we win the election it means that we have strong support from the people in the whole country," he said. "That strong support is a foundation toward a peaceful power transfer, like what countries usually do."
Other countries weigh in
The latest salvo in the political battle comes as foreign governments, including those which helped war-torn Cambodia rebuild 20 years ago, decried the proposed party law changes.
The U.S. Embassy said it was "deeply concerned" that the amendments were passed with little consultation or public debate.
"Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia's political development and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections," the American mission said.
It called on Hun Sen's government to ensure that the elections this year and next "are free, open, and transparent, and that all political parties have the opportunity to compete on an equal basis."
"Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia's political development and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections," the U.S. embassy said.
Australia and the European Union also questioned the wisdom of the party law changes.
"The Australian Government encourages the Cambodian Government to ensure credible and transparent elections by maintaining political space for all voices and views to be heard," the embassy told RFA's Khmer service.
The EU mission in Phnom Penh questioned how the changes would affect the "long-term stability of the country," saying the changes "would potentially allow for arbitrary restrictions of political party activities or for their dissolution."
It added: "Such actions against opposition parties would call into question the legitimacy of the coming elections."
Other countries should stay out
Hun Sen chastised the foreign nations, particularly the United States, saying that Cambodian affairs should be left up to the Khmers.
"All foreigners should understand that the Khmer story should be solved by Khmers," he said. "It is true that I need your aid. It is true that I need to do business with you and need cooperation with you. However, I have never interfered in your internal affairs."
Hun Sen accused Washington of being hypocritical, noting the bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
"When you bombed my country and you killed my people, did you ever think about human rights?" he said. "This Cambodian law which has been passed by the National Assembly is not a law to kill the people like you used to kill Cambodian people."
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