PHNOM PENH • Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday vowed to resist foreign interference, following international criticism of the arrest of his main rival for treason and a widening crackdown on his critics.
The US and EU condemned the detention of opposition leader Kem Sokha and steps against the media that forced the independent Cambodia Daily to shut yesterday.
"We can't allow any group to destroy the peace we hold in our hands by being the puppets of foreigners," Mr Hun Sen said at the opening of a new mosque in Kompong Cham province.
"We cannot allow foreigners to use Khmers to kill Khmers any more," he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge genocide that destroyed Cambodia in the 1970s.
Mr Hun Sen, 65, is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who switched sides before its defeat.
The Prime Minister accused the United States - which he often refers to as "the third hand" - of plotting a coup, evoking the Washington-backed Lon Nol regime, which ousted the late King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 before being toppled by the Khmer Rouge five years later.
"The Americans used to do it, this problem, with Lon Nol, and now the Americans do this problem with Kem Sokha," he said.
NO MORE PUPPETS OF FOREIGNERS
We can't allow any group to destroy the peace we hold in our hands by being the puppets of foreigners... We cannot allow foreigners to use Khmers to kill Khmers any more.
MR HUN SEN, Cambodian Prime Minister, referring to the Khmer Rouge genocide that destroyed Cambodia in the 1970s.
Opposition politicians, human rights groups and independent media in Cambodia have come under growing pressure in the run-up to an election next year in which Mr Hun Sen could face the greatest electoral challenge of his more than three decades in power.
One of China's closest allies in the region, Mr Hun Sen has increasingly ignored criticism from Western donors whose budget support is no longer as critical as during the early years of his rule.
Mr Sokha, who is accused of plotting with American support, was arrested in a raid on his home early on Sunday. He has led the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party since February, when exiled former leader Sam Rainsy resigned after controversial legal amendments effectively criminalised his role in the party.
Mr Sokha was taken into custody by more than 100 police and sent almost 200km away to a prison near the Vietnamese border.
Ms Mu Sochua, one of three deputies to Mr Sokha in the party, told Reuters that Mr Sokha's lawyer had been allowed to visit him for the first time yesterday. "He seemed to be OK," she said.
According to Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin, Mr Sokha had been charged under Article 443 of the Criminal Code for "conspiracy with foreign power", which is defined as the act of "having a secret agreement with a foreign state or its agents, with a view to fomenting hostilities or aggression against the kingdom of Cambodia". The crime carries a prison sentence of 15 to 30 years.
The European Union called for Mr Sokha's immediate release, based on the fact that he is meant to have parliamentary immunity, as an elected lawmaker.
"Along with recent actions by the authorities against NGOs and some media organisations, this arrest suggests a further effort to restrict the democratic space in Cambodia," the EU said in a statement.
The US State Department expressed "grave concern" at Mr Sokha's arrest on charges that it said appeared to be politically motivated. It said in a statement that it was also worried about other curbs on media and civil society.
Spokesman Heather Nauert said the steps "raise serious questions about the government's ability to organise credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy".
Mr Hun Sen has steadily increased his rhetoric against the US, ending joint military exercises, expelling a US pro-democracy group and on Sunday accusing Washington of conspiring with Mr Sokha.
REUTERS, THE PHNOM PENH POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK