Prime Minister Hun Sen went into full attack mode on the opposition on Monday, claiming credit for installing CNRP President Kem Sokha, releasing more details of his contact with Mr. Sokha and criticizing former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy’s father, Sam Sary, as “a national traitor.”
The offensive—dismissed by Mr. Rainsy as part of the ruling party’s “smear and disinformation campaign”—was accompanied by the resignation of a provincial opposition leader on Monday, who echoed the prime minister’s rhetoric claiming that Mr. Sokha was working at the behest of Mr. Hun Sen.
At a graduation ceremony on Monday in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen took credit for Mr. Sokha’s ascendancy, saying, “I did talk with Kem Sokha and the plan that made Kem Sokha become party president was orchestrated by me.”
The remarks followed a telephone conversation that leaked on Saturday—confirmed by Mr. Hun Sen but called into question by the opposition—that seemed to show Mr. Hun Sen offering advice to Mr. Sokha last September on how to sideline then-CNRP President Mr. Rainsy. The conversation supposedly took place while Mr. Sokha was holed up in CNRP headquarters to evade a court case against him that was widely considered to be politically motivated, and ahead of securing a royal pardon at the request of Mr. Hun Sen for a conviction relating to the case. In the leak, Mr. Sokha does not reply when Mr. Hun Sen asks him to be a partner.
Mr. Sokha assumed the CNRP presidency last week after the CPP-led National Assembly passed legislation allowing the government to dissolve political parties led by those convicted of crimes, even misdemeanors. Mr. Rainsy fled the country in 2015 and has remained in Paris facing a slew of charges.
“The law [on political parties] requires that the leader is chosen within 90 days,” Mr. Hun Sen said on Monday, explaining how he orchestrated Mr. Sokha’s rise. “Then, he was chosen quickly.”
“Do not play with Techo,” he said, using one of his honorifics.
Though the prime minister and his family have been at the receiving end of past leaks, including a dump last week of hundreds of apparently intercepted text messages, Mr. Hun Sen had no qualms on Monday about confirming the legitimacy of the latest leak.
“A guy staying outside [the country] made an allegation that it was not real, but edited,” Mr. Hun Sen said, indirectly referring to Mr. Rainsy, who dismissed the unflattering leaks on Sunday as “invented or doctored and published out of their context.”
Earlier in the day, at a groundbreaking for a new ring road in the capital, he taunted Mr. Rainsy, asking, “Do you want to try?”
“If you want to try, I will disclose all of the WhatsApp and SMS…all your documents sent to me in WhatsApp, Telegram, Line,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
At the later graduation ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen said he followed through on his threat, ordering government mouthpiece Fresh News to release a WhatsApp exchange purportedly between Mr. Hun Sen and CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann.
The conversation was published on Fresh News within a couple of hours, and in it Mr. Hun Sen asks why Mr. Sokha and the party do not condemn or expel activists for claiming that the prime minister’s eldest son, Hun Manet, was fathered by a Vietnamese communist official.
“I heard with my own ears that Mr. Rainsy talked about the issue of Manet as the son of a Vietnamese leader in the meeting,” said the reply, purportedly from Mr. Monyvann. “For those supportive of Kem Sokha, [we] have never touched Uncle’s family.” Uncle apparently refers to Mr. Hun Sen.
The reply, attributed to Mr. Monyvann, says the party is working to distance itself from pro-CNRP Facebook pages Cham Chany and Brady N Young that circulated the allegations.
“Now I have observed from the behavior of Mr. Sokha that he appears eager to meet and discuss with Uncle. Will Uncle permit it?” the correspondent, ostensibly Mr. Monyvann, pleads. Mr. Hun Sen responds non-committedly, saying he is about to fly to Russia.
Mr. Monyvann could not be reached for comment on Monday, but claimed a past leak by Fresh News was “fabricated” in a Facebook post on Friday.
Mr. Hun Sen’s disclosure of the conversation may violate Article 97 of the Telecommunications Law, which forbids publicizing “the content of dialogue without obtaining legal rights from party of dialogue or legitimate authority or applicable legal regulations.”
According to legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, if the conversation has two parties, it requires the permission of both parties to be released.
But Mr. Hun Sen wasted little breath citing legal code in his speeches on Monday, and reserved his strongest language for Mr. Rainsy.
“I want to send messages to you—not just one Rainsy but 100 Rainsy—calling the ghost of Sam Sary, your father, a national traitor,” Mr. Hun Sen said on Monday during the graduation ceremony. “I am never afraid.”
Mr. Sary was a close associate of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk during the 1950s, but went into exile and disappeared in 1962 after being implicated in a plot to overthrow the prince. He is presumed dead.
As Mr. Hun Sen was speaking inside a Koh Pich convention center, Soung Sophorn, a former head of the CNRP working group in Pailin province and vocal activist representing evicted Boeung Kak residents who once sued the prime minister, delivered a speech from a nearby stupa announcing his resignation from the party and denouncing Mr. Sokha’s ties to the prime minister.
“We cannot let the person who we understand as the puppet of the ruling party to lead the party,” Mr. Sophorn said.
Mr. Sophorn said he had been suspicious of Mr. Sokha since the Human Rights Party joined forces with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to form the CNRP, but it took the release of Mr. Hun Sen’s conversation to confirm his worst fears and prompt his resignation.
“If Kem Sokha continues to lead the party, there will be more higher officials continuing to leave the party,” he said, adding that he had no plans to join the CPP.
Reached on Monday, Mr. Rainsy downplayed the significance of the resignation and the leaks.
“This is just an invented, inflated or distorted piece of information that is part of a CPP-backed smear and disinformation campaign and a psychological war aimed at dividing and weakening the CNRP,” he wrote in an email. “We are not stupid enough to take it seriously and to fall into their trap.”
Speaking of Mr. Hun Sen’s criticism of his father, Mr. Rainsy turned to a quote he ascribed to King Sihanouk in 1989, when the king was asked why he associated with former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan: “Khieu Samphan is a criminal but not a national traitor, whereas Hun Sen is both a criminal and a traitor.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)