The leader of a little-known opposition party was briefly brought to trial on Monday for insulting the military, an uncharacteristically rapid progression through the justice system following a warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen against anyone disparaging the armed forces.
“If you are not clear, be silent and be careful…one was already handcuffed on Monday,” Mr. Hun Sen said on Monday morning at a graduation ceremony on Koh Pich island in Phnom Penh. “Please, you be careful with your commentary that affects the armed forces and dignity of all kinds of armed forces.”
His statement came hours before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Sourn Serey Ratha, the leader of the Khmer Power Party (KPP) who was arrested on Sunday, with three counts of incitement for a scathing Facebook post he made on Saturday.
In the post, Mr. Serey Ratha accused generals of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces of relaxing in air conditioning and enjoying female companionship while rank-and-file soldiers did the fighting, adding that the prime minister “bows down his head” and “enters his adversary’s barracks asking for negotiation” after Mr. Hun Sen announced on Friday that he would travel to Laos to discuss a border dispute.
Court spokesman Ly Sophana said on Monday that Mr. Serey Ratha had been charged for inciting military personnel to disobedience, demoralization of the army and incitement to commit a felony.
Mr. Serey Ratha’s trial began on Monday but was quickly postponed as he had to find a lawyer, Mr. Sophana said, adding that the trial was scheduled to resume on August 24. He faces a total of up to 12 years in prison and 24 million riel, or about $6,000,in fines if convicted of all three charges. A court statement said he was provisionally detained in Prey Sar prison.
Mr. Hun Sen issued a broad threat against any commentators who were considering repeating the themes of Mr. Serey Ratha’s screed.
“This is the state’s security and national security. It cannot be insulted,” the premier said. “That you are insulting the army cannot be forgiven.”
“Don’t say that I am a dictator,” he added, noting that without the implementation of the state of law, there would be anarchy.
Mr. Hun Sen also expounded upon the details of his trip to Vientiane on Saturday, during which he negotiated the withdrawal of a few dozen Laotian troops who were stationed in a disputed area in the north of Stung Treng province.
The dispute arose because the Laotian foreign minister had failed to pass along an August 2 letter from Mr. Hun Sen to his Laotian counterpart, Thongloun Sisoulith, Mr. Hun Sen said.
The premier said he had installed WhatsApp, a popular messaging app, on Mr. Sisoulith’s phone during his trip to prevent signals getting crossed in the future.
Mr. Hun Sen also said he had flown to Vientiane to seek a diplomatic solution, in hopes of avoiding an armed clash between the neighboring countries.
“This is not bowing down the head, but it is the political diplomacy with softness and goodwill,” he said.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declined to say what the opposition would have done about the border dispute, but praised any solution that avoided war.
“We would prefer the peaceful solution, any solution that leads to the mutual benefit of the country…and neighboring countries.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said “tiny Laos” was unlikely to excite much fear and consternation among the Cambodian public, but Mr. Hun Sen would nevertheless try to use it to boost his “strongman credentials” if it dragged on.
“So don’t be surprised if this border dispute ‘flares up’ again in the run-up to the 2018 election,” he said.