Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has a long track record of hurling insults at his political rivals, on Monday called for a campaign season free from personal attacks in the lead-up to June’s commune elections.
Having recently sued two politicians and a commentator for accusing him and his ruling CPP of orchestrating last year’s assassination of political analyst Kem Ley, Mr. Hun Sen warned of more lawsuits if the attacks continued.
“Insulting others, or candidates of other parties, will lead to an unavoidable dispute because if those who are looked down on or those being insulted or wrongly accused are not satisfied, they will use their right to sue,” the premier said during an inauguration ceremony for a school building in Kratie province.
“Do not insult others. Some words should not be spoken, but they speak them,” he said of his political opponents. “But the law does not allow it if a problem arises.”
Instead, he said, “We need to take the example of advertisers who always promote their own goods and never look down on the goods of others.”
In the last few months, Mr. Hun Sen has sued former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, Sam Rainsy Party Senator Thak Lany and political commentator Kim Sok for claiming that either he or the CPP arranged Kem Ley’s murder, a common opinion held by many Cambodians.
Earlier this month, the ruling party accused the CNRP of incitement over its campaign slogan for the commune elections—“change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people”—and threatened to sue if it refused to abandon the tagline. A lawsuit could threaten the CNRP’s very survival under a recently amended law that gives the courts the power to dissolve a party for incitement.
But Mr. Hun Sen is no amateur at doling out insults himself, or using his bully pulpit to portray the CNRP as everything from a group of populist liars to the next Khmer Rouge.
On a personal level, he has called Mr. Rainsy the son of a traitor and accused CNRP President Kem Sokha, while he was serving as acting president, of paying to have sex with a 15-year-old virgin. He has made thinly veiled attacks against a “bald-headed” political analyst, and a female opposition lawmaker with “strong legs,” a derogatory Khmer phrase aimed at women.
Asked about the premier’s history of personal attacks, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Hun Sen was in the right because he was defending himself against attacks from others.
“Those people provoked him,” he said, so “they have to get it back.”
Asked whether Mr. Sokha, for example, had the same right to attack the prime minister for making the unsubstantiated claim that he had paid for sex with an underage virgin, Mr. Siphan said he did.
“Kem Sokha has the right, too,” he said.
“Everyone has a right to criticize,” Mr. Siphan explained. “But harassment and insults [we] cannot accept.”
It’s not clear whether Mr. Sokha heard the prime minister’s latest message.
The CNRP president, who was rallying party supporters in Siem Reap province on Monday, appeared to be casting about his own veiled barbs.
“If we, human beings, do not know our birth, we are of no birth,” he said. “We have good birth and did not originate from the West or the East.”
Mr. Sokha avoided naming any parties. But he appeared to contrast the CNRP and its supporters to the CPP, which was put in power in the 1980s during Cambodia’s occupation by Vietnam, its neighbor to the east.
The CPP has proven especially sensitive to references to its historic ties to Hanoi, a sore spot the opposition has been happy to poke.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)