PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia's strongman premier vowed Monday (Sept 19) to "eliminate" his opponents if they push ahead with plans for nationwide protests against an ongoing government crackdown that has sparked international alarm.
The latest rhetoric, some of Prime Minister Hun Sen's strongest in recent months, ratchets up worsening political tensions in the kingdom, which will hold national elections in 2018.
Rights groups have accused long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration of arresting scores of critics and tying up other opponents in legal cases.
The main opposition party's deputy leader Kem Sokha has been holed up for weeks in his office, sleeping on a makeshift bed.
He was handed a jail sentence earlier this month for refusing to appear in court over an alleged sex scandal prosecution that the opposition say is politically motivated.
His party has threatened to hold nationwide demonstrations if moves are made to arrest him or if the crackdown continues.
"Don't threaten (me) with demonstrations in exchange for talks. No way, youngest brother!," Hun Sen said at a university graduation ceremony Monday, in a characteristically lengthy speech.
"This is not just a warning, it is more serious than a warning because it is an order to eliminate those who destroy security and social order," he said, adding that foreign countries had no right to criticise his administration.
Last week a group of 36 states - including the European Union and the United States - issued a joint statement saying they were "deeply concerned" about escalating political tensions in Cambodia.
Hun Sen, a former army commander who defected from the Khmer Rouge, has dominated Cambodian politics for the past 31 years.
His administration claims it has brought much needed peace and stability to a nation ravaged by civil war.
But opposition groups have gained ground in recent years amid growing disillusionment with endemic corruption, rights abuses and political repression.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) accuses Hun Sen of denying it a majority by rigging the 2013 election in his favour, a charge the premier denies.
CNRP's top leader and Hun Sen's chief rival, Sam Rainsy, has spent nearly one year in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest warrants he claims are politically-motivated.
More than a dozen of opposition figures, including two MPs, are currently in prison facing charges, while more than 20 political activists and rights workers have faced legal action over the past year.
Four land activists were sentenced on Monday to six months in jail each for allegedly insulting public officials during a protest in 2011.