Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said he would “eliminate” opponents who dare to protest against his government during a speech in which he also declared that he personally ordered the military to deploy around the CNRP’s headquarters late last month.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said he had triggered the military exercise from Singapore as a test of his mobile command capabilities.
“I wanted to know the force’s reaction,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Within 36 minutes, all forces from land, sea and air were able to move around.”
On August 31, five military helicopters, five speedboats and trucks carrying armed and masked soldiers were deployed around the opposition party’s headquarters in Meanchey district, two days after the military said it would “guarantee” the arrest of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha if asked to do so. Mr. Sokha, sentenced to five months in prison earlier this month, has been in hiding in the building since May to evade authorities.
Mr. Hun Sen said the deployment was an anti-terrorism exercise and was not meant to intimidate the CNRP, noting that armed forces did not go inside the party’s headquarters.
“The government in office has the right to command an exercise anytime,” he said. “If there was terrorism, what would happen if one force ended up in the east while the others ended up in the west?”
The prime minister’s explanation appeared to contradict comments from Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat, who said in the days following the exercise that it had been for a flood-relief exercise.
Facing international rebuke for his government’s wave of suppression against critics, Mr. Hun Sen denied accusations of intimidation, saying that the opposition was the one creating tension by raising the prospect of mass demonstrations—which he again pledged to prevent.
“It’s not a threat, but it’s beyond a threat because it was a kind of command to eliminate whoever wants to destroy security and social order,” the prime minister said, reiterating a caution he posted to Facebook after the CNRP first warned of mass protests.
“You have the right to demonstrate. Why can’t we have the right to respond?” he added. “You have the right to support the opposition. I also have the right to support the government.”
Mr. Hun Sen said that he would not stoop to negotiating with the CNRP in the face of threats to protest.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said he was dismayed by Mr. Hun Sen’s stance.
“He needs to read our Constitution. The Constitution protects the right to peaceful demonstration and the government has an obligation to provide security,” Mr. Chhay said. “He’s got the whole thing wrong.”
Given the government’s seeming disinterest in following the law—including the constitutional immunity meant to protect lawmakers from prosecution—public pressure was a last resort, he added.
“That’s why you rely on the public in this kind of situation,” Mr. Chhay said. “Sometimes there needs to be someone to shake them to wake them up and force them to do the right thing.”
(Additional reporting by Michael Dickison)