Gov’t Seeks Arrest for Minister Death Rumor

The Defense Ministry has ordered the arrest of the owner of a Facebook account that posted a message—denied by the government—claiming Defense Minister Tea Banh had recently died in Beijing.

Though the ministry claims to not yet know who runs the Hai Khmerkrom account, dissident former monk Soeung Hai—who says he secured asylum in Sweden last year—has claimed ownership and said he posted the offending message.

“According to rumors from the duck’s Defense Ministry, Samdech Tea Siam died at 4 a.m. in Beijing on the 21st,” reads the message, which was posted on Monday. “Please prepare a coffin to transport him back to Cambodia.”

The duck is a play on General Banh’s family name, Tea. Siam refers to rumors that he is partly of Thai heritage. The message is accompanied by a photo of Gen. Banh lying in a hospital bed, edited to include a bunch of bananas on his chest and a pot of joss sticks by his head.

Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said on Thursday that Gen. Banh had gone to China to be treated for an unspecified illness but insisted it was not serious. He said the minister was very much alive.

“This is a serious insult to Samdech. Even if it was me I would ask authorities to find and arrest him,” Gen. Sucheat said of whoever posted the message. “He must face arrest.”

The spokesman said various government agencies had been ordered to find and arrest the account owner but declined to say which. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry declined to comment.

Contacted on Thursday via Facebook, Mr. Hai said the account and message were his.

“I posted it because I heard a rumor from the Defense Ministry, so what is the mistake if I only share information on Facebook?” he said. “I only wanted to share the information, so I didn’t know if it was true.”

Mr. Hai declined to say who he allegedly heard the rumor from, claiming it would put his source in danger.

The former monk, once a constant thorn in the government’s side, was jailed in 2014 for protesting and released in April the following year. Early last year he said he had received asylum in Sweden after fleeing Cambodia on a tip that police were seeking to arrest him again over a protest he joined along the Vietnam border about alleged incursions by Hanoi.

On Thursday, Mr. Hai said he had left Sweden for another Scandinavian country but declined to say which. He dared Cambodian authorities to arrest him.

“I welcome them to arrest me if they can. But Tea Banh has committed a bigger insult to Cambodian life. He said he would break the teeth of anyone who protested,” he said.

In May, Gen. Banh threatened to “smash the teeth” of anyone who dared to protest against the results of the coming month’s commune elections.

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