The United States should publicly demand that the Cambodian government retract threats to retaliate against the political opposition in Cambodia if there are protests at the upcoming US-ASEAN summit over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s participation. US President Barack Obama will meet with Hun Sen and other leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on February 15-16, 2016, at the Sunnylands estate in California.
Obama should also publicly press Hun Sen to end violence and harassment of opposition supporters, drop criminal charges against peaceful protesters, and release all political prisoners in the country.
“Hun Sen and his surrogates are telling American citizens that if they exercise their right to protest on US soil there will be attacks against the political opposition in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The US government should say publicly that it won’t allow a leader with a proven record of violence to chill speech in the US.”
On October 25, 2015, after peaceful protests against an official visit to Paris by Hun Sen which he said had been organized by the opposition Cambodian National Reconciliation Party (CNRP), he warned, “If someone comes back at you tomorrow in Phnom Penh with the same game, don’t be angry.” He added, “Tomorrow there will be a demonstration in Phnom Penh against the opposition party to demand the removal” of CNRP Acting President Kem Sokha from his post of first vice-president of the National Assembly.
A large and well-organized demonstration by forces loyal to Hun Sen took place as forecast, with many members of the army and the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, dressed in civilian clothes, identified as participants. This was followed by a premeditated and brutal assault on two CNRP National Assembly members on the grounds of the parliament. Members of government security forces were involved in the attack. Both victims had to be evacuated to Bangkok for emergency medical treatment. Soon afterward, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) met in parliament in the absence of the boycotting CNRP members and removed Kem Sokha from his post.
On January 25, 2016, Hun Sen responded to news that Cambodians living in the US were planning to demonstrate against him at Sunnylands by declaring on his Facebook page that if the demonstration went ahead, a counter-demonstration was “a possibility that could happen in order to oppose the leaders of the opposition party.” Since then, the CNRP has repeatedly stated that it is not behind the planned protests. It has said it is not organizing protests because it fears violent retaliation and that the CPP will use the protests as a pretext to derail election reforms ahead of local elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018.
On February 8, Hun Sen’s second oldest son, Maj. Gen. Hun Manith, 34, head of military intelligence (officially chief of the Armed Forces Supreme Command Research and Intelligence Directorate) and a member of the CPP Central Committee, accused the CNRP of helping to organize the Sunnylands protest. He made a veiled threat, saying the CPP would do its best to prevent violence against the opposition, “but there is no guarantee.”
On February 3, Khan Chan Sophal, who has close links to the CPP and appears to be a military officer, posted on Facebook a statement that he attributed to an unnamed observer that if the demonstration in the US went ahead, “Kem Sokha fears that CPP supporters will demonstrate and burn down his house or drag him out of his car and beat him like those two members of the National Assembly” assaulted on October 26, 2015.
On the day of the October attack, Khan Chan Sophal posted photographs of the victims sprawled on the ground with a Facebook “like” describing them as “swollen pigs,” and suggested the attack was understandable for what he falsely alleged was prior CNRP incitement of violence against local authorities. In various photographs posted on his Facebook accounts he appears in uniform as a field grade army officer, including while attending Supreme Command events. He also appears in civilian clothes at various CPP and armed forces events.
“Hun Sen’s forces have beaten and killed protesters in Cambodia, so the threats against the opposition are credible and of grave concern,” Adams said. “Hun Sen should publicly issue direct and explicit orders that he will not tolerate violence against the opposition and that all security forces must act impartially to protect the right to peaceful protest. If he doesn’t, Obama should use the Sunnylands summit to make clear that relations between the US and Cambodia will be impacted unless the rights of peaceful protesters are fully respected.”