Tensions in Cambodia rise amid Cabinet reshuffle

Jailed Cambodian opposition members and activists being escorted by police officials outside the appeal court in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
Jailed Cambodian opposition members and activists being escorted by police officials outside the appeal court in Phnom Penh on Thursday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PM takes aim at opposition; top police official accuses NGOs of conspiracy

A top Cambodian police officer has warned that a "colour revolution" is possible, as political temperatures rise a notch with strongman premier Hun Sen tightening his grip, reshuffling his Cabinet and taking aim at the deputy leader of the opposition, Mr Kem Sokha.

The reshuffle was done  in the name of efficiency, according to the premier. Mr Hor Namhong retains the largely ceremonial deputy prime minister post, while the foreign affairs post goes to Mr Prak Sokhonn, currently posts and telecommunications minister.

 On Tuesday the government jailed a 25-year-old university student for remarking on Facebook that he would one day lead a colour revolution to bring change.  This refers to a wave of anti-government mass movements in recent years, mainly in the former Soviet bloc.

Kong Raya, charged with incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security, was arrested in August last year and has already spent over six months in custody. He will serve another year.

Reports say he is the first person in Cambodia to be convicted and jailed for a Facebook post. The UN reacted sharply, saying yesterday that it was "deeply concerned".

Mr Laurent Meillan, acting regional representative of the UN's Office for Human Rights, said that someone being jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression was a "clear indication of the diminishing democratic space in Cambodia".

 The day after the student was sentenced, Deputy National Police Commissioner Chhay Sinarith accused non-government organisations (NGOs) of conspiring with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) to foment a "colour revolution.''

Mr Chhay, who is on the central committee of Mr Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), levelled the charge at an annual meeting of security agencies in Phnom Penh. He accused unnamed "international organisations abroad, and some local non-government organisations that receive support from them" of aiming to "topple the government".

The government sees NGOs as a "fifth column for foreign interests'' said Mr Sebastian Strangio, author of the book Hun Sen's Cambodia.

"The government frequently accuses NGOs that are not aligned with the government of working with the opposition,'' he said in an interview. Several NGOs have since dismissed the accusations as groundless.

 Meanwhile, there has been a sharp increase in political sniping between Mr Hun Sen's CPP, and the CNRP headed by Mr Sam Rainsy, who is outside the country avoiding a warrant of arrest in Cambodia for alleged defamation of the CPP. 

The famously truculent Prime Minister, who has ruled for 31 years got a shock when his CPP was nearly toppled in the 2013 general election, in which the CNRP made dramatic gains. Criticism of the government is rife on social media, which contributed to the 2013 jolt.

The government is sensitive about it, and since then, a series of new laws has narrowed the space for public expression. 

Mr Hun Sen is now gearing up for the grassroots level Commune Election in July next year, a year before the next general election in 2018. The Commune Election is, to a degree, a bellwether of the public mood.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Tensions in Cambodia rise amid Cabinet reshuffle'. Print Edition | Subscribe