In response to government complaints, Radio Free Asia has pulled from its Web site a report in which Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng downplayed the CPP’s accusations against the Sam Rainsy Party for allegedly raising an armed force, an RFA official said Sunday.
In a meeting with RFA Vice President Dan Southerland, Sar Kheng gave assurances of the opposition party leader’s safety and downplayed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s deadline for the alleged militants to surrender, Radio Free Asia reported Friday.
But following the broadcast, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak asked RFA not to repeat the report and to remove it from its Web site, despite it being accurate, Southerland said Sunday.
Southerland said he agreed to pull the report, citing ambiguity as to whether Sar Kheng’s comments had been on the record.
According to RFA, Sar Kheng said Sam Rainsy, who is scheduled to return from the US today, can safely return to Cambodia whenever he wants.
“He will not face danger related to the government’s accusations against his political party’s involvement in establishing an illegal armed force structure,” Sar Kheng was quoted as saying. “None of the SRP members have been arrested yet. We have not found any weapons as evidence of an armed force’s struggle to make war.”
Sar Kheng also reportedly punctured Hun Sen’s threats that the militants will be arrested if they do not surrender and testify against their leaders.
“Although there is the government ultimatum of 15 days for the arrests of the SRP activists in hiding, there is no problem,” he was quoted as saying.
Southerland arrived in Phnom Penh from Washington Friday to check on one of his organization’s reporters, who was detained last week while reporting on Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province.
A former war correspondent who covered Cambodia and Vietnam, Southerland later explained his decision to pull the report.
“There was in fact ambiguity as to whether Sar Kheng’s remarks were on the record. I expected a meeting that was an off-the-record courtesy call, where I would protest the detention of the reporters and express our position that it should not happen again,” he said.
But when he arrived at the meeting, Southerland said, there were three television cameras and a number of Interior Ministry officials, leading him to believe otherwise.
“The fact is, we got all the important points out on the air concerning Sam Rainsy. That was the news,” he said.
Sar Kheng declined to answer a reporter’s questions Sunday. Khieu Sopheak did not answer repeated telephone calls. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser Om Yentieng also could not be reached.
Government officials have clarified that the target of Hun Sen’s accusations is the opposition party’s Committee No 14—an aboveboard network formed in May 2001 that reports to party leaders on the RCAF and related government departments.
Hun Sen issued the 15-day deadline on July 25, when he said that the network’s “spokesmen” were actually “spies”—a label that he suggested merited their party’s banishment from the National Assembly.
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that the government is still going after Committee No 14.
“The government still regards them as an illegal armed force and the ultimatum stands,” he said.
But Khieu Kanharith also said: “The government doesn’t have any evidence that the [Committee No 14] spokesmen want to topple the government. But they are recruiting soldiers illegally.”
Although the scant evidence presented against Committee No 14 has been questionable, government officials have repeatedly referred to its structure, based upon RCAF’s military regions, as indicative of its militaristic aspirations.
RCAF intelligence chief Mol Roeup repeated Sunday that the evidence against the opposition activists, much of it organized by himself, is damning.
“I don’t believe Sar Kheng and the CPP spokesman [Khieu Kanharith] said that the government doesn’t have any evidence. I filed a complaint because I have evidence,” he said.
“After the 15-day ultimatum, if no [defector] comes out, the court will issue warrants and the authorities will be ready to arrest them,” Mol Roeup said.
Ney Thol, director of the Military Court, which is investigating Mol Roeup’s complaints, declined to answer a reporter’s questions Sunday.
Sar Kheng’s downplaying of his boss’ accusations surfaced at a time of spreading speculation on fissures in the secretive CPP leadership.
The abrupt July 13 departure of CPP President Chea Sim to Thailand—on the day he was supposed to approve controversial, deadlock-busting legislation—has fueled speculation of discontent within the party.
Chea Sim is Hun Sen’s strongest rival in the ruling party, and Sar Kheng is widely known to belong to his camp.
Regardless, the CPP has denied any fractures in the party, saying Chea Sim’s police-escorted trip to Bangkok was for a medical check-up.