February 1, 2023

Hun Sen threatens retaliation against people planning to protest his Brussels visit

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a threat to people planning to protest his visit to Brussels, urging supporters to take photos of the demonstrators and post them at Phnom Penh International Airport so authorities back home could visit their families.

Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, is in Brussels to co-chair the EU-ASEAN Summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and hundreds of protesters plan to travel by plane, train and bus to join a rally against the autocratic leader, said Men Sotheavarin, an official with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The prime minister met Monday night with about 2,000 Cambodian nationals living in Europe in the Belgian capital, thanking them for their support. He praised his own leadership and mocked exiled political opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who fled to France in 2015 to avoid arrest for various charges his supporters say were politically motivated.

“We need to take pictures of their faces, then we can easily post their pictures at Pochentong Airport,” Hun Sen said, referring to Phnom Penh International Airport. “It doesn’t mean that I’m threatening them not to return to Cambodia, but I want to know their faces, and I also want to find their family members who are living in Cambodia and see how they are doing.”

In 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court disbanded the CNRP at Hun Sen’s behest and imposed a five-year ban on 118 of its members from working in politics. That ban expired in November, allowing the former members to re-enter politics ahead of general elections in July.

“Democratic countries allow people to have political freedom,” said Men Sotheavarin. “Hun Sen’s threat is showing the EU that he is a dictator. People who are living in the free world will be working against dictatorial leadership.”

Ny Sokha, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, or Adhoc, which assists human rights victims and disseminates information on democracy, agreed.

“Regardless of the majority or minority, the leaders should respect dissenting opinions and consider resolving the issue,” he told Radio Free Asia. “It is good for the leaders, but on the contrary, if they are using threats and restrictions, I think it makes people understand about their dictatorial leadership which goes against democracies,” he said.

Prior to the demonstration, the CNRP youth group submitted a petition signed by Cambodians in Europe to urge the Cambodian government to respect the Paris Peace Agreement, open the space for civil rights and press freedom in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country, and release political opposition party activists.

Hun Sen is leading a high-level delegation to the Commemorative Summit celebrating the 45th anniversary of dialogue relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union. He is co-chairing the event with Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

Participants will discuss the promotion of economic and people-to-people exchanges, digital transformation and connectivity, ensuring green transition, energy and food security, and sustainable development, according to a statement issued by Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

‘This is a threat’

Kien Ponlok, secretary general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students, said he believed that Hun Sen’s threat would lead to serious human rights violations.

“This is a threat to the people living abroad and to all those people in Cambodia,” he said. “It is not a violation of the freedom of expression and rights to [stage] nonviolent strikes.”

In an open letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, Sam Rainsy expressed alarm that Macron agreed to receive Hun Sen during the latter’s visit to Europe.

“This is a dictator who is hated by the majority of the Khmer people and who has been condemned by democratic nations throughout the world,” Rainsy wrote. “When he is outside the country, he has only one aim: to rebuild his international legitimacy, which has been seriously impaired by his increasingly grave violations of human rights in Cambodia.”

“Such a meeting is also a mistake in moral terms if we consider the sufferings of the victims of Hun Sen’s endless brutality,” he wrote. “These are detailed in the latest report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia published on August 26, 2022.”

In the report, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, said the government should remove restrictions on political participation and introduce other democratic reforms to address “severe human rights challenges.”

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