A warning that his opponents should “prepare their coffins,” is probably not the expected material of a prime minister’s speech. But Prime Minister Hun Sen has rarely minced words when it comes to publicly challenging his domestic political opponents and his international critics.
Known for his strident, irreverent and often rudely comic speeches, the premier’s strong words are of tremendous appeal to everyday Cambodians, projecting an image of stability and dominance in a country used to conflict and uncertainty.
But the premier’s choice of nouns and adjectives—in 2006 he railed against those who disapproved of the Cambodian judges selected for the Khmer Rouge tribunal saying, “They are not human, they are animals…. They even want to seduce their own parents”—are now for the first time being wrangled over in court.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua has accused the premier of defaming her during a nationally broadcast speech last month. Mr Hun Sen has denied the charge, and countersued the lawmaker and her lawyer. Government officials have claimed that the target of the premier’s scorn was another woman, who has never been named.
The courts will now decide on the matter.
Judging by his fiery speeches in the past, one noticeable trait the prime minister displays is that he almost never names the targets of his criticisms, rebukes or threats-even when that target is obvious to the public.
Regarding the September 2006 “coffins” speech, for example, the target was almost certainly Prince Sisowath Thomico. In his speech, the premier warned unspecified people who sought to dissolve the National Assembly to “prepare their coffins.” That warning came two days after the press published Prince Thomico’s announcement that he intended to petition the Assembly to legally disband through a no-confidence vote.
In December 2007, Mr Hun Sen threatened to name a “spy” of his in the political opposition, saying, “I have VCDs and documents in my hands to show that you took my money to work for me as a spy.”
Mr Hun Sen did not give a name but did mention details, including the fact that that “spy” had criticized the appointment of the premier’s son, Hun Manet, to head a new scholarship commission. On the day the premier made his threat, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay had been quoted in a newspaper criticizing Mr Hun Manet’s appointment.
On May 1, 2008, the prime minister announced in a speech that an official might be arrested for gambling, which is illegal for Cambodians to engage in. He gave no name but did give the following details: the official had supposedly gambled in Phnom Penh’s Olympic commune and in Battambang province. As it so happens, then-SRP Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang, who was living in Olympic commune at the time and was a lawmaker for Battambang, had admitted to once having a gambling problem.
But what about Ms Sochua’s case?
On April 4 at a dedication ceremony in Kampot province the premier stated: “The opposition party, they have nothing to do besides using people as their tools to attack the government. In Kampot there is a cheung klang [strong legs] who is a woman, that I don’t want to name but she isn’t Her Excellency [National Assembly-Senate Relations Minister] Som Kimsuor. She is good at inciting people and causing problems. Even during the election campaign, she hugged a man but said she was unbuttoned. She had a tantrum and filed a complaint. For meetings, she was not invited but she still went. This is the opposition party, they have a thick face-even if you hit [it] with 100 knives, it would not cut them.”
Ms Sochua is an opposition politician for Kampot province. On June 30, 2008, which was during the campaign period ahead of the last national election, Ms Sochua became involved in an argument with RCAF official San Sman over his allegedly campaigning for the CPP while using a state vehicle. In complaints filed with the National Election Committee and the court, she claimed that the general had wrenched her arm, causing her blouse to come unbuttoned. That matter is currently with the Appeal Court. On Feb 5, 2009, Ms Sochua attempted to take part in the 3rd Annual Cambodian Economic Forum but was denied entry, ostensibly because she had not been invited. She was then also barred from a Southeast Asia Inter-Parliamentary Union seminar in Phnom Penh on March 9 for reportedly the same reason.
Ms Sochua claims in her lawsuit that the prime minister’s April 4 remarks were aimed at her, and that they constituted defamation, particularly the phrase “cheung klang.”
According to Professor Miech Ponn, a member of the National Committee for Khmer Language, the phrase, which literally means “strong legs,” refers to those “who do not respect the law, lack wisdom or abuse their power.”
Article 61 of the UNTAC criminal code states that one can still be guilty of defamation “even if it refers to a person who is not explicitly named but whose identity is made evident from the defamatory speech.”
In an interview last week, Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to speak about Mr Hun Sen’s April 4 remarks or the dueling defamation lawsuits the premier and Ms Sochua now have with the Phnom Penh court, calling the issue a “case between two persons, two individuals.”
Asked about the prime minister’s general pattern of often not naming those he criticizes, Mr Kanharith replied, “Sometimes he names, sometimes he doesn’t.”
Regardless of whether the prime minister was referring to Ms Sochua, or whether his remarks were defamatory or not, some observers believe that both sides should just let the matter lie and find a common ground.
“Public personalities, sometimes they play with words,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. “As politicians there’s no need to sue each other through the court because this will limit freedom of speech” in future political discourse, he said.
Politicians should “be restrained in their words” when speaking in public, Mr Panha said, but ultimately it is the voting public, and not the courts, that should take leaders to task for their comments.
“We try to educate voters that anyone who used bad words or defamatory words is not a good politician,” he added.
Kek Pung, president of local rights group Licadho, also believes lawsuits over a political speech serve no purpose. Since Mr Hun Sen and Ms Sochua are both lawmakers, she said, they ostensibly have the same goal: improving the lives of their fellow Cambodians.
“I’m sure they can find a common point to work together,” she said, adding that with a backlog of violent criminal cases already piled up, the courts don’t need any extra work and pressure placed on them.
Mrs Pung added that after years and years of speeches, the prime minister’s forceful style is nothing to be surprised about.
“Everybody knows that he screams, and that he insults people,” she said, adding, “People hear him like that but nobody pays attention now…. So why take [his April 4 remarks] as something very important?”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)