Summoned to the National Assembly on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An defended the government’s recent lawsuit against a critic of Angkor Wat’s nighttime illumination, branding the litigation a necessary means of saving the country from political unrest.
Referring to Moeung Sonn, president of the Khmer Civili-
zation Foundation, whom the government sued on June 2 for alleged disinformation and incitement, Mr An told 98 lawmakers present at the Assembly that Mr Sonn had repeatedly lied in radio interviews about the lighting “to cause chaos and confusion among the public.”
Moeung Sonn has fled to France to avoid legal action. In a recent Voice of America radio broadcast, Moeung Sonn said that heat generated by lighting installed at the temples could cause damage.
Human rights workers have criticized the government’s re-
cent series of criminal proceedings for disinformation, saying they threatened democracy and freedom of expression.
However, Sok An told the Assembly on Friday that punishing speech deemed to be damaging was necessary to preserve order.
“As we know, the Angkor issue is most sensitive because the whole population, and the world, regard it as a marvel,” he said. “And we have put Angkor on our flag, meaning that it is the soul of Khmer citizens.”
“There has been a lot of broadcasting of false information,” he continued, adding that the media had quoted from “lying sources.”
He added that the “lies had been prepared in advance with bad intentions, that are against the government, the Apsara [Authority].”
Citing the 2003 anti-Thai riots, Mr An said that the government had to prevent any such public disturbances from recurring.
“We still remember the day of the demonstration which turned into riots in January, 2003,” he said.
“A Thai movie star said that Angkor belongs to the Thais and she said that she would not come to Cambodia before Cambodia returns Angkor back to the Thais,” he said.
“For just this one word, they created riots in Cambodia, set the Thai Embassy on fire and burned all the Thai shops, and were going to burn gasoline stations,” he said. “We had to apologize to them because we could not protect their embassy, we had to negotiate to pay the money, and they asked for $56 million.”
Mr An did not mention, however, that the 2003 riots erupted following a speech by Mr Hun Sen who drew public attention to the alleged comments by the Thai actress. It later turned out the Thai actress had not made any such comments.
Mr An also compared the current actions of the government to the US response to the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, following which wide-ranging powers were granted to US police and intelligence agents.
“They had a fast reaction. In few days, they could make a big law named the Patriotic Act,” he said. “We have not created any law. we are just implementing the rule of law…. So our measures are lighter than theirs,” he continued.
Mr An said that lighting was not harmful to the temple, adding it was just a test, as the government planned to light Angkor Wat for tourists who visit at night.
He added that a foreign expert who has experience in lighting world heritage landmarks had installed the lighting and Mr An denied media reports that the temple had been drilled to install the lights.
SRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth, who had invited the cabinet minister to explain at parliament, said by telephone that she was upset that Mr An’s hours-long remarks had been so lengthy that no time remained for questions.
“It is intimidation” to sue citizens who were just giving information to the government, she said, adding the government had instead “turned the interests and expression of opinions [about the project] into incitement.”
Ms Sovannaroth also said that Mr An had only announced that the project was a test for the first time Friday.
“It was not announced publicly that it was a test when people started to report and expressed their worries. This is not incitement,” she said. “People do not have real democracy when there is no contribution from the media and the people.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said that he planned to write to the government asking for the lawsuit against Mr Sonn to be withdrawn and said that the government had “overreacted.”
“We must have people involved. This is not only about Mr Sonn. But this has made other people afraid to correct authorities” he said.