Cambodia’s Hun Sen says activists, NGOs shouldn’t malign those who switch to CPP

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday mocked opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations for criticizing recent efforts to coax young activists to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, the prime minister alleged that some recent converts to the CPP have told him that foreign donors and activists have been working to get younger Cambodians to conduct a “color revolution” – a term sometimes used to describe an anti-regime protest movement.

He added that the young activists were being paid to go against the Cambodian government.

"I am telling those who claim to be a democracy don't respect democracy,” he said, a likely reference to the West and its support for democratic activists. “You regard your supporters as good people, but you see those who support the government as selling out.”

Lessons from the 1970s

Hun Sen also appeared to warn the United States about the possible unintended consequences of committing a “third mistake” against Cambodia.

The prime minister didn’t mention the United States by name, but he said the first mistake came out of the 1970 military coup d’etat – sponsored by the U.S. – that removed Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power. The coup intensified civil war and paved the way for the Khmer Rouge to come to power five years later.

The second mistake was supporting the Khmer Rouge’s claim to Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations in the 1980s, he said. The Cold War-era move followed an invasion by Vietnam that drove Khmer Rouge insurgents to the Thai border, and it came at the start of a decade that saw more turmoil and slow economic development.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who took part in the Vietnam-led invasion, was a part of the government installed in 1979. He became prime minister in 1985.

He said Wednesday that, as a leader, he’s had to rebuild the country from scratch.

“I advise you not to commit a third mistake,” he said. “This is what I said to those countries who claim to be the father of democracy when they met me.”

Leaders ‘must be open’ to all opinions

The prime minister’s remarks come amid a recent campaign to co-opt activists, opposition figures and journalists ahead of the July general election.

In the latest example, at least 25 former staffers of the recently shuttered media outlet Voice of Democracy have applied for government jobs, a CPP spokesman said on Tuesday.

In a democracy, someone like Hun Sen can't avoid being criticized, said Soeung Sengkaruna, a spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), a local rights group. He can’t just regard any criticism as an abuse of human rights and democracy, he said.

"A leader must be open to accept all opinions. If they give constructive feedback, [the government] should accept it for reform," he said.

In mentioning the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen should have pointed out that China was their main supporter during the 1975-1979 Pol Pot regime and also provided support during the 1980s, said Um Sam An, a senior official in the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party who lives in the United States.

Vietnam’s recent closer relationship with the U.S. – even as bitter memories of war from the 1960s and 1970s remain – is a good example for Hun Sen of flexible thinking in international relations, Um Sam An said.

"A leader needs to think about the national interest rather than the past," he said.

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