Cambodia must work during the next 18 months to destroy the opposition party at the local level before European Union trade sanctions come into effect, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a phone call to government officers leaked to social media on Thursday.
Dismantling remaining networks of opposition to Hun Sen’s rule would prevent the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party from gaining strength to challenge the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in future elections, Hun Sen said.
It would also remove support from exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has vowed to return to Cambodia after more than three years abroad and who should now be ignored, the long-ruling prime minister said in the audio clip, which was posted on several Facebook pages in Cambodia Thursday morning.
“To weaken [Sam Rainsy’s] popularity, it would be good not to respond to him,” Hun Sen said. “We don’t need to talk so much about Sam Rainsy.”
“We already have warrants for his arrest, and we need to execute those warrants. If he resists, we will use all means that we have to eliminate any elements who oppose the government,” he said.
And if Sam Rainsy verbally attacks Cambodia’s pro-government military and security forces, the soldiers and police “must be patient and not respond,” Hun Sen said, adding that Fresh News, a Cambodian media outlet sympathetic to the ruling CPP, can be counted on to reply.
Sam Rainsy must not be allowed to become the “focal point” of any future political negotiations with the CNRP brought about by international pressure, Hun Sen said.
‘Facing tough problems’
On Tuesday, the European Commission, which coordinates trade policy for the EU, announced a period of monitoring that could lead to the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade access to the bloc’s market under an Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, citing a deterioration in the Southeast Asian nation’s labor and human rights record over the last year and a half.
Examples cited in the EC statement include the September 2017 arrest of CNRP president Kem Sokha on charges of treason and the dissolution of his party two months later by the Supreme Court, paving the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.
Any withdrawal of trade preferences would come into effect after 18 months from the EC’s Feb. 12 announcement.
Cambodia’s government lashed out at the EU in a statement Tuesday, calling the decision “unjust” and suggesting that the bloc “doesn’t respect Cambodia’s sovereignty, because the EU’s demands amount to political interference.”
In his leaked phone call to government officers, Hun Sen said that if Cambodian trade preferences are withdrawn, “this will make things easier for me, because then no one can ask me to pardon Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.”
“We can control the local situation,” he said.
Reached for comment, government spokesperson Phay Siphan refused to comment on the leaked audio.
“I don’t comment on leaked information,” he said. “I only comment on official statements.”
Also speaking to RFA, Kim Sok—a Cambodian political commentator and frequent government critic now living in exile in Finland—said that Hun Sen’s comments on the audio show that he is trying hard to reassure himself in the face of sanctions that will hurt the whole country.
“Hun Sen is facing tough problems on how to resolve the EBA issue,” Kim Sok said.