On the 45th anniversary of Lon Nol’s U.S.-backed 1970 ouster of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday publicly accused the opposition CNRP of working to illicitly overthrow his CPP government.
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha told an audience of supporters in the U.S. last week that he regretted the opposition’s failure to remove the CPP from power after the 2013 national election and described the subsequent political truce as an unsatisfactory compromise.
In a speech in Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet City on Wednesday, Mr. Hun Sen pounced on the comments as proof that the CNRP was aiming for an unlawful overthrow after the disputed election.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new road in Poipet, the prime minister suggested that legal action could be taken against Mr. Sokha given his “confession.”
“Accidentally, the story has been revealed,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “There’s a person coming to confess that they tried to topple the government and the CPP but that they failed, and are now apologizing to people in the U.S.”
“What legal action should we take? If the robber and robber chief confess, what legal action should we take? The people who lost property must find this person. Arresting him and demanding money is right, not wrong,” the prime minister said.
“Now the robber has started showing his face—the mastermind who wanted to topple the government urgently,” he continued. “I hope the courts are not stupid because they should note down what was said, because [Mr. Sokha] has also been summoned for questioning.”
Mr. Sokha and CNRP President Sam Rainsy were questioned at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in January 2014 over their suspected involvement in labor protests that ended in bloodshed earlier that month, with five workers shot dead by military police.
At no point in the CNRP’s protests between September 2013 and January 2014 did the party shy from its intent to oust Mr. Hun Sen, leading tens of thousands of people through Phnom Penh chanting “Hun Sen, step down” and demanding a new election.
Both Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy pledged repeatedly during the protests not to enter the National Assembly without an early and more fair election, which they said would guarantee Mr. Hun Sen’s removal from power.
Speaking to a crowd of mostly expatriate supporters of the CNRP in California on Friday, Mr. Sokha apologized for the party’s failure to achieve “urgent, good and complete” change during the protests and instead turning to negotiate with the CPP.
“Our intention was to change things completely but we know developments in politics do not always go as we wish,” he said. “Sometimes we cannot implement [changes] 100 percent, because we are not making a revolution.”
“Even the U.S. government… when we held demonstrations, it asked us not to take to the streets, as there may be violence, and it always wanted us to come to negotiate…and it said ‘Why do you not go to negotiate?’”
Mr. Sokha’s comments also sparked backlash Wednesday from National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun, a hard-line CPP lawmaker who previously served as Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia.
At a press conference in Phnom Penh after Mr. Hun Sen’s speech Wednesday, Mr. Vun said Mr. Sokha’s comments about removing the CPP government were consistent with intelligence he received in late 2013 regarding the party’s demonstrations.
Mr. Vun said he received a “top secret” letter—from a source he declined to reveal—that cited an Amnesty International USA official named William Butkus in revealing that a U.S. lawmaker was advising the CNRP on how to run its post-election protests.
The CPP lawmaker said U.S. House of Representatives member Steve Chabot, who chairs the foreign affairs subcommittee, was advising Mr. Rainsy on how to remove Mr. Hun Sen through street demonstrations until U.S. Senator Dick Durban intervened to end the effort.
“According to Butkus, Dick Durban requested to Steve Chabot to slow [his efforts toward] change in Cambodia by inciting and helping Sam Rainsy to grab power,” Mr. Vun said. “Steve Chabot was in charge of this issue.”
Mr. Vun said that the advice provided to Mr. Rainsy by Mr. Chabot had been “to topple the CPP, to topple Hun Sen through the power of the people by marching on the streets,” according to the secret letter he received.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said the embassy was not aware of any contact between U.S. lawmakers and the CNRP over its protests.
“We have no information about this allegation,” he said in an email.
Neither Mr. Rainsy nor opposition spokesman Yim Sovann could be reached for comment Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)