It’s never a good sign when the leader of a country just emerging from decades of repressive rule puts on a military uniform, stands with a group of his nation’s top generals, and makes some rather thinly veiled threats to his political opponents.
“Your tongue is the reason for war. If you still make insults and threats to kill, you have to prepare your coffin,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on June 21. “To protect the peace for millions of people, if necessary, 100 or 200 must be eliminated. Please listen carefully. ... Whoever intends to undermine peace will receive what you deserve.”
The prime minister delivered the speech at a 40th-anniversary commemoration of the day he decided to defect from the Khmer Rouge army and organize rebel forces that eventually defeated the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. Hun made the speech wearing his military uniform — a rarity for him — and while flanked by his top military commanders.
Hun, who has ruled Cambodia for 32 years, also made clear that power over Cambodia is, and will continue to be, in the hands of his family. This remains to be seen, especially given the upcoming general election in 2018, which could pose a serious threat to Hun’s Cambodian People’s Party.
All three of Hun’s sons occupy positions in the administration; two are high-ranking officials in the military, and one is a lawmaker in the National Assembly.
“There is an attempt to destroy the Hun family,” the leader said, with his sons standing behind him. “The Hun family is not the family for you to attack for fun.”
Hun’s threats are not new, but they should really be taken seriously
These remarks are just the latest in a series of menacing speeches that Hun has delivered throughout the local elections, which concluded June 4. Last month, he threatened to wage war on opposition leaders if they led post-election protests. He has also vowed to “smash the teeth” of anyone who incites civil unrest.
Cambodia has organized national elections since 1993, though it has been virtually impossible for any other political party to challenge the CPP’s rule, until now. In 2013, despite even more intimidation and electoral manipulation than in previous years, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which is the main opposition party, managed to take 22 seats from the CPP in the National Assembly, giving them a total of 55 out of 123 positions.
The CPP still managed to keep their parliamentary majority in 2013, but now they’re coming up against an even more aggressive CNRP, who have worked for the past five years to galvanize the country’s large youth population.
Earlier this month, Cambodia held local elections that were seen as a key indicator of how the two rival parties would do in the more important general elections scheduled for 2018. According to preliminary counts, Hun’s party received 51 percent of the popular vote, down from 60 percent in 2012; the CNRP got 46 percent of the vote, up from 30 percent in 2012.
Local elections in Cambodia aren’t typically seen as that important, but the buildup of opposition forces in the past few years made this one markedly different. Close to 90 percent of registered voters participated in these elections — the highest turnout in Cambodia’s history. Hun even hit the ground to campaign, attending his first political rally since 1998.
So when the official election results are released June 25, they’ll be closely scrutinized as a litmus test for next year’s general election. If the CNRP can build on their gains to secure a majority in the 123-seat National Assembly, they’ll push Hun’s CCP out of power for the first time in 38 years.
Hun has made it clear that he’s willing to use violence to stop this from happening, and given his track record, this isn’t an empty threat.
In the lead-up to this election, opposition supporters have been assaulted and journalists jailed. The most dramatic incident was the murder of political commentator and prominent government critic Kem Ley, who was shot in broad daylight. Not only has Hun denied that his government was behind the assassination, but he has sued two people and jailed a third for suggesting that it was, reported the New York Times.
All this bodes badly for the people of Cambodia. Post-election protests in 2013 left four dead and more than 30 injured. Hun’s recent death threats to opponents suggest that those numbers could climb a lot higher both in the wake of this Sunday’s results and next year’s general election. His talk of preparing coffins, in other words, should be taken rather literally.