Fear and Posturing as Party Leaders Warn of Civil War

“Civil war” has become something of an electioneering catchphrase in the past weeks, but it comes with varying levels of gravity. One warning comes from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rules with an iron fist and commands power over the army, judiciary and government. The other is from Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled opposition leader whose party members were recently ousted from the National Assembly and whose deputy, Kem Sokha, is facing a rash of lawsuits.

Mr. Hun Sen says that the prosecution of more Khmer Rouge war crim­inals than the few currently in detention, and making claims over contested territory with Vietnam are two of the fronts on which war could be incited by the opposition; the only way to avoid conflict, he says, is to ensure that he wins the July 28 election.

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Mr. Rainsy heeds a similar warning of civil war, but in his world, it is imminent should the looming election be anything but fair, if the country’s border with Vietnam becomes any more porous and particularly because of the recent ouster of 27 opposition lawmakers from Parliament.

Either way, voters can consider themselves duly warned of the pros­pect of war, and the election campaign period has yet to even begin.

But what of the likelihood of such conflict in a country that has seen election-related violence decrease significantly since the UNTAC-backed vote of 1993?

Experts believe that chances of actual conflict are slim.

Indeed, Mr. Hun Sen has long warned of the prospect of civil war, including in April 1998 in the lead-up to the national election that year.

“I can accept losing and I can beat violence, injustice and unfairness in the upcoming elections,” he said in a speech that month. “[But] if the July 1998 election is held in an unjust and violent atmosphere, then war will begin.”

A decade later, in 2009, he was warning the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) that the country would teeter precariously on the brink of civil war if further prosecutions were sought for Khmer Rouge crimes.

“I will allow this court to fail, but I will not allow Cambodia to have another war. This is an absolute stand. Please prosecute only those people,” Mr. Hun Sen said, referring to the five Khmer Rouge regime detainees at the time.

“[If] we prosecute 20 more people, there will be war. Then we will not be able to prosecute those 20 people and war will have started. Thousands of people will be killed.”

As recently as last week, the warning came again—this time if the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) wins the coming election.

“I have real indicators showing that war will take place if these guys are elected,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “There will be both an internal war and external war, especially a war with Vietnam.”

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it is irresponsible for Mr. Hun Sen to warn of war ahead of the election, particularly when it is the CPP—not the CNRP—that has a track record of conflict, vis-a-vis the 1997 factional fighting, and is also in the best position to prevent such an occurrence.

“Responsible leaders, when visualizing the likelihood of such eventuality, would take necessary measures to preempt and prevent that civil war from occurring,” he said. “And since our leaders of the country have the command of re­sources of the country and also other means, governmental apparatus, machinery—certainly they should utilize all of them so as to ensure that such events would not occur.”

Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said he does not believe civil war is a legitimate risk in Cambodia. Despite the fear mongering from both sides, such talk “it is political posturing and rhetoric.”

“I don’t think there are any indicators of the capacity of any groups to launch a civil war and Hun Sen does not launch civil wars, he only represses groups, and he has been effective in doing that,” Mr. Thayer said in an email.

The CNRP says it simply does not have the means to instigate an internal war.

Last week, Mr. Rainsy warned that “by expelling all opposition deputies from the National Assembly and in proclaiming, arbitrarily and illegally, the end of their mandates based on universal suffrage, Prime Minister Hun Sen has created the preconditions for a civil war.”

“It is outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen who publicly offers the Cam­bodian people only two alternatives: either rigged elections associated with the rejection of the U.N. recommendations or political chaos that could possibly lead to civil war. It shows Mr. Hun Sen willing and threatening to cling on to power at any cost,” Mr. Rainsy’s letter says.

Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said people have been misinterpreting Mr. Hun Sen’s warnings of civil war, claiming that “civil war is created by independent opposition parties.”

“People think if they do not have their own army that civil war cannot occur. But in fact, there are a number of nations where civil war was not created by the state, but by the people—a rebellion,” he said.

An example of this, he said, is the rise of the Khmer Rouge from 1970 to 1975. “That civil war didn’t happen from state forces, but by the opposition party, from dissidents. That’s the root cause. Once everyone understands that, they will understand that Hun Sen cannot conduct a civil war.”

He said the opposition’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and accusations of the government as Vietnamese puppets only serves to stoke and incite violence. “What the government is trying to do is explain to the people. The Khmer Rouge tried to incite the people to stand against their own government.”

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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