Interior Minister Sar Kheng would not be “stupid” enough to plan a coup d’état, Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the opening of a stretch of railway on Monday.
After the April 3 ouster of Algeria’s long-ruling dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika, opposition leader Sam Rainsy — who has assumed the role of “acting leader” of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) while his successor Kem Sokha remains under house arrest — called on Kheng for a similar move in Cambodia.
Yet at a ceremony in Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet City to unveil a long-awaited stretch of rail that relinks Cambodia to Thailand via locomotive, Hun Sen said he harbored no doubts about Kheng, who is also deputy prime minister.
“Now, let’s try to think together. The deputy prime minister topples the prime minister: What would that mean? It would be equivalent to a coup d’état. After the coup d’état, to whom would the power be offered? Hand power to him?” Hun Sen asked, in an apparent reference to Rainsy’s public appeals to Kheng.
“Handing power to him is imagining that Samdech Kralahom Sar Kheng is very stupid,” the prime minister added, using an honorific for the longtime interior minister and deputy prime minister. “So it’s not necessary for Samdech Kralahorm to respond to this issue, because we are united on this. Before when we had a meeting at the Council of Ministers, I said it’s not necessary to respond to it.”
In the wake of the removal of Algeria’s president, who had been in power for 20 years, Rainsy had said the CNRP would support Kheng and his followers inside the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) if they decided to execute a coup. On April 1, he also posted to Facebook suggesting the two CPP leaders were at odds.
In a video comment titled “Between the Two Rivals Hun Sen and Sar Kheng, Who Will Attack First?” Rainsy said it was a matter of time before disputes broke out.
“It is just waiting to explode, brothers and sisters! Who dares to attack first? We don’t have any forces. But we believe whoever attacks first, they get the victory,” Rainsy said. “Don’t let them attack first, you have to attack them first. It’s not easy — today, Sar Kheng’s group and Hun Sen’s group do not get along well.”
“We have to tell those people that whoever overthrows Hun Sen, we will support them and they will not be alone,” he continued. “Hun Sen will be alone.”
Days before, Rainsy had asked the same question of Hun Sen and his bodyguard unit commander, Hing Bun Heang, who was blacklisted by the U.S. last year under its Global Magnitsky Act. Rainsy suggested the commander of the elite bodyguard unit should “strike first” against his boss “if he doesn’t want to die like [former National Police chief] Hok Lundy, who was assassinated by Hun Sen in 2008.”
Rainsy later also made an appeal directly to the military to turn on Hun Sen.
Rainsy has lived in France since November 2015 to avoid a two-year prison sentence suddenly rekindled amid a short-lived detente with Hun Sen. The prime minister last month suggested he would be met with machine gun fire if he tried to re-enter Cambodia by corralling supporters at a land crossing to avoid arrest.
Meas Nee, a prominent social and political analyst, said that he believed calls for any fighting between armed factions of the state were not good for Cambodia.
“Cambodians should not dream of walking toward causing continued violence or confrontations between armed forces. This is important for Cambodians to avoid,” Nee said, before adding that it was still clear changes were needed in Cambodia.
“A positive solution — change that can be accepted by the people, as well as political rivals and an escape from the culture of ‘waters rise, fish eat the ants’ — I think that would make make it easier for everyone to come back together.”
During their short-lived “culture of dialogue” detente from 2014 to 2015, Hun Sen and Rainsy spoke often of Cambodia escaping its historically vindictive political culture that they defined by using a well-known Khmer proverb: “When the waters rise, the fish eat eat the ants; when the waters recede, the ants eat the fish.”
On Saturday, speaking at a ceremony at pagoda in Prey Veng province, the interior minister himself had dismissed Rainsy’s appeals for a coup, even as he acknowledged the government under Hun Sen had some changes to make.
“In fact, today, under the leadership of the government with Samdech Techo Prime Minister [Hun Sen], I do not deny that there are shortcomings or remaining points, but these are remaining points that we can correct,” Kheng said, explaining that he believed seeking change through a coup d’état could rekindle past problems.
“It is not so much that we cannot change it, like under Pol Pot’s regime or the old regimes that were toppled; it’s not at that level. No, we won’t go back a few steps.”
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)