Hun Sen Says Peace Trumps Free Expression

A day after the ruling party filed a defamation complaint against one of the country’s most prominent political commentators, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday defended limitations on freedom of speech as being necessary for peace and stability.

“Some people can only talk about democracy—talk about human rights,” the prime minister said during a speech at the inauguration of a highway in Banteay Meanchey province.

“But they don’t think about the right to live…about the right to have peace,” he added.

It’s a familiar topic for the premier, who, when accused of human rights violations and other abuses, often invokes the peace he claims to have brought to Cambodia after taking control of the country more than 30 years ago.

“There has to be the role of peacekeeping first,” he said. “If the war begins, the mouth is completely closed.”

On Monday, the CPP filed a criminal complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against po-litical analyst Ou Virak over allegedly defamatory comments published by Radio Free Asia (RFA) over the weekend.

Mr. Virak suggested in an interview with RFA that the relentless pursuit of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha over his alleged extramarital affairs would backfire on the government.

“The activeness of the CPP in subduing its political competitor in such way will make it lose a lot of popularity, and some officials in this party are also not fond of this tactic,” he is quoted as saying.

On Tuesday, Mr. Virak said he could not comment on Mr. Hun Sen’s speech because he had not heard it, but dismissed the notion that free expression had a negative impact on stability.

“On the contrary, in fact,” he said. “If you look at the nations that really respect the right of citizens to actively engage in the democratic process, those are the most stable countries in the world.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said, however, that critics such as Mr. Virak had to be kept in check because the population was accustomed to a single ruler—and simply not ready to embrace political plurality.

“We have only one king, not two…. Ou Virak won’t understand that,” he said.

“The opposition means the enemy in Cambodia,” he added.

Mr. Siphan said that while Mr. Hun Sen’s speech was not aimed at Mr. Virak, the analyst’s views had the potential to “incite” members of society.

“Misleading to incite the people against the government is not allowed,” he said.

Over the past two days, Mr. Virak—who holds both Cambodian and American citizenship—has enjoyed an outpouring of support on social media, as well as from rights groups and various foreign delegations, including the U.S. and French missions to Phnom Penh, which shared photographs of the analyst meeting with diplomats.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email on Tuesday that the embassy was “monitoring the situation closely.”

taylor@cambodiadaily.com, sothear@cambodiadaily.com

© 2016, Taylor O’Connell. All rights reserved.