Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday dismissed speculation that he had canceled this year’s Water Festival for fear of large crowds flooding Phnom Penh and protesting against the government, and warned of possible retaliation against those who made the claims.
A statement released Saturday canceling the annual three-day event, signed by the prime minister, said nationwide water shortages and low water levels meant the popular boat races on the Tonle Sap river would be dropped for the fourth time in five years. Political analyst Ou Virak and opposition lawmaker Son Chhay both made comments to the media that the government canceled the races—which usually draw well over 1 million people to Phnom Penh—at least in part to prevent large crowds from gathering in the city’s streets.
Thursday, at the inauguration of a Japanese-funded city drainage project, Mr. Hun Sen insisted that low water levels were the only reason for the cancellation of the event, which was due to start on November 24.
“Today the water is 4.8 meters high, and we predicted that when the Water Festival would start in about 20 days the water would be only 4.2 meters high,” he said. “For the best boat racing, the water should be 7 meters or a little bit more than 7 meters.”
Answering the skeptics without naming them, he challenged them to prove him wrong.
“Analyst, please come out to talk and take a boat and race. I will pay for you, especially the analyst and some opposition lawmakers,” he said. “They said the government does not dare to celebrate the Water Festival because it is scared of National Rescue Party demonstrations.”
Mr. Hun Sen dismissed the idea and said the skeptics could end up being the target of government loyalists.
“Is the government scared of people? Be careful: They will go to your house,” he said. “I am not warning, but you are unreasonable. Insulting comments cannot be accepted.”
The prime minister’s warning followed a six-hour siege on the home of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha late last month, during which protesters pelted his house with stones while his wife was inside and police ignored her phone calls for help. The same day, two CNRP lawmakers were severely beaten at a protest against Mr. Sokha outside the National Assembly that had been publicly promoted by Mr. Hun Sen. Three soldiers are in custody for the attacks.
Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen urged the crowds to come to Phnom Penh to prove his critics wrong, and said that he would pay out of his own pocket for the winners and finalists of Cambodia’s many televised singing competitions to hold concerts
“Please, people, come and visit Phnom Penh to show the political analyst and uneducated lawmaker,” he said. “I appeal to the people along the Mekong River and nationwide to please understand the government. The government invites all of you who want to visit Phnom Penh to see the exhibits, just not the boat racing.”
To the singers, he added, “All of you please come. I will pay. Famous singers, please come.”
Contacted after the prime minister’s speech, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong said he was expecting far fewer visitors and vendors than usual to come to the city during the three-day festival, but declined to speculate on the likely numbers.
Mr. Virak, who heard the prime minister’s speech, said he believed he was probably one of the targets of Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks. He said that impunity for attacks against government critics was more of a problem than the threat itself.
“It shouldn’t be a threat, but it is in the context of impunity for people who attack people who speak up,” he said.
Mr. Chhay could not be reached for comment.