Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Sunday that the imprisonment of 11 CNRP activists for “insurrection” last week was a message from Prime Minister Hun Sen that the party must end its campaign to highlight encroachments along the Vietnamese border.
Mr. Rainsy’s comments came after the government announced that Mr. Hun Sen used a meeting with the commanders of the armed forces on Thursday to order them to eliminate any “color revolution” in Cambodia following the opposition party’s stoking of border tensions with Vietnam.
Over the past two months, CNRP lawmakers have led trips to four provinces along the eastern border to highlight alleged territorial incursions, culminating in some 2,500 activists heading to a disputed area in Svay Rieng province on July 19.
Two days later, the 11 CNRP activists who have been on trial since March 27 were in a sudden decision found guilty and sentenced to between seven and 20 years in jail. Mr. Rainsy on Sunday described the decision as political.
“This is related to the border issue, which could have far-reaching implications, and this is a strong signal to the opposition: Don’t go to the border, and as long as we stop going to the border and creating tensions by exposing evidence, then it will be OK,” Mr. Rainsy said by telephone from Luxembourg.
“This is cosmetic, it is just to present a message. It may be embarrassing to recognize that the border issue is so sensitive that it has to be, quote, ‘resolved,’ without any transparency and without anyone but government officials involved,” he added.
“They cannot present it like that, so they speak about ‘color revolution’ and ‘sedition,’ etc.,” Mr. Rainsy said, also defending his decision to leave for Europe in the wake of the decision to jail the CNRP activists, saying he had long planned the trip.
Mr. Rainsy, who lived in exile in France between 2009 and 2013 to avoid a jail term stemming from his uprooting of a disputed post along the border in Svay Rieng, has been widely criticized for flying out on the day of the decision.
“My daughter has just given birth, so I think that explains why I wanted to leave Cambodia,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“We must not dramatize events. No politician has been jailed for more than a few months. It will be a political settlement and relates directly to Hun Sen, not to confronting or officially protesting. Other people do that very well,” he added.
Mr. Hun Sen on Thursday hosted a meeting of some 5,000 security and armed forces personnel at the headquarters of his bodyguard unit in Kandal province, where the matter of border demarcation was reportedly raised.
The Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit on Friday released a statement summarizing the premier’s message to the military, military police and police.
“Hun Sen, the head of government, also talked about the domestic political situation in Cambodia by insisting that the issues that happened were provoked by the CNRP. He sent a message to all kinds of the armed forces to protect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country by keeping good relations with neighboring countries,” the statement said.
“More importantly, Hun Sen asked the armed forces to ensure that a ‘color revolution’ cannot take place in Cambodia. Under any conditions, eliminate [the revolution] to protect the legitimate government. The armed forces are not neutral between government and political parties,” it added.
“Hun Sen insisted that any actions by any political parties or groups who want to topple the government have to be eliminated,” the statement continued.
“[We] have to mentally educate our military, police and military police to understand clearly the idea: ‘Be neutral between political parties, but not between the government and parties,’” it said. “Any forms of illegal activity must be dealt with immediately, and eliminated without hesitation.”
On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh released a statement calling on the CPP government to review how the CNRP’s 11 activists were handed such lengthy prison sentences for their attendance at a protest where a brawl broke out.
“The United States is closely monitoring the case of the 11 CNRP activists convicted of insurrection arising out of July 2014 protests in Phnom Penh. Peaceful protest and freedom of expression are fundamental aspects of democracy,” it said.
“The group, which includes U.S. citizen Meach Sovannara, was summarily convicted and received sentences that many feel are inappropriate,” it added. “The United States is deeply concerned by the process leading to these convictions.”
“We urge the Cambodian government to carefully review its judicial processes to ensure that they are complete and transparent and in accordance with domestic law and international norms,” the statement concluded.
In response, the Council of Ministers released another statement on Saturday appearing to threaten U.S. Embassy staff—despite their diplomatic immunity—with prison sentences for formally criticizing the decision handed down by a court.
“The announcement from the U.S. is in support of the group that committed a crime, and disrespects the court’s decision,” the letter said. “It is a serious wrongdoing from the U.S. that…could be considered as intended to create chaos, and to destroy security and prosperity in Cambodian society.”
“The act of criticizing a court’s decisions by letter, in aiming to cause chaos for the public order or to cause risks for Cambodia’s institutions carries a prison sentence from one month to six months and a fine of 100,000 to 1,000,000 riel [about $25 to $250].”
Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who arrived back in Cambodia shortly before Mr. Rainsy departed last week, plans to visit the activists in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison today.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)