From ‘Color Revolution’ to ‘Extremists’: CPP’s Linguistic Gymnastics Against Dissidents

5 min read
The CPP’s congress in Phnom Penh on January 28, 2023. (Hun Sen’s Facebook page)
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The Cambodian People’s Party will root out all extremist political groups, the party said at a congress this weekend, as party workers again voted for Hun Sen to lead them into the upcoming national election.

The ruling party held an extraordinary congress with more than 3,000 CPP members this weekend in Phnom Penh, with the big takeaways being the party’s aggressive stance on “extremist” political opponents and vows to defeat them — rhetoric often employed by Prime Minister Hun Sen to talk about opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his allies.

“In this spirit, it is necessary to get rid of all forms of extremist politics from Cambodian society, not to allow this trend to cause the nation divisions, to strengthen​ national unity and ensure a peaceful living environment for the people,” reads a party statement at the conclusion of the two-day meeting.

As is customary, the party also picked Hun Sen to lead them into the 2023 national election in July, with a mention that Hun Manet, who was picked by the CPP in December 2021 to succeed his father, would be the candidate in the future.

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said the ruling party didn’t need to specify which political groups were extremists.

“Sam Raisy is an extremist politician because his activities are still incitement to chaos and to bring society back to the past disaster,” Eysan said.

He said the country was currently in a phase of democracy and multiparty values and that the party would take quick action to stifle any extremism. Eysan added that past references to color revolution were more apt for the Cambodia National Rescue Party and its attempts to mobilize mass demonstrations after the 2013 election.

Hun Sen and the ruling establishment have used changing names to describe the now-dissolved CNRP as well as some of its senior leadership overseas and the wider opposition movement inside and outside the country.

A scan of his speeches posted to his website in English has the prime minister using terms like extremist groups, ill-willed groups, traitors, and factions who are fleeing abroad. Previously, he and government officials repeatedly spoke about a so-called color revolution — a reference to an alleged foreign-aided attempt to overthrow the Cambodian government, over which former CNRP president Kem Sokha is facing treason charges.

But “extremists” has been the more common moniker as of late.

Earlier this month, Hun Sen used the word in his address on the January 7 liberation day holiday, also called prampi makara, then followed it up with a string of pressure against opposition politicians in the country. “Any person or political party that serves the extremist politics of the traitor convicts must change their actions in time, otherwise they will face legal action,” he said.

In the following weeks, the ruling party sued Candlelight Party senior adviser Kong Korm for a speech he made, asked him to leave his home that was on Foreign Ministry land, and arrested party vice president Thach Setha in an alleged check bouncing case. The Candlelight Party, formerly the Sam Rainsy Party, has become a de-facto successor for the disbanded CNRP.

In his most clear comments on what he considers an extremist group, Hun Sen said in October that he used his “DIFID” strategy — divide, isolate, finish, integrate and develop — to “bring down the Khmer Rouge political and military organizations.”

But he would need only two of the steps — isolate and finish — to handle extremist groups, he said, making a clear reference to Rainsy, who he says comes from “three generations of traitors.”

“This time I use only two letters — I and F. … I am going to go to the provinces to set up a network to eradicate extremist ideological organizations formed by the three generations of traitors,” he said.

Rainsy, in an email on Monday, instead called Hun Sen an extremist who was running a fascist dictatorship.

“This means that this dictatorship’s robbing of the people and destruction of the nation will continue forever through his descendants according to his plan to have his descendants rule the country after him,” he said.

Hun Sen has also sporadically used the term for others. He once called politician-turned-soothsayer Khem Veasna an “extremist only in terms of religion/faith” in August last year and once referred to environmental activists as “extremists who [keep talking about] where has the forest gone.”

Meas Nee, a social commentator, said most other countries refer to acts of terrorism when referring to extremists, and that in Cambodia it was previously, and commonly, used by the Khmer Rouge.

“During the Pol Pot regime the word of extremism was used and people have been killed because of this word being linked to them,” he said.

He said the ruling party was finding different words to taint the opposition because they were unable to get the CNRP’s voters to change their choice at the ballot box.

Politicians too said they were not thrilled with the use of the word. Men Sothavarin, a former CNRP lawmaker, said the dissolved party was not in an armed conflict with the state and were only using democratic principles to push their messaging.

“The people know clearly who is a dictator, who does what and who is an extremist. People really know this clearly,” he said.

Ou Chanrath, who heads the Cambodia Reform Party, said words like extremist were being used more commonly, especially from last year’s commune election. Rainsy and his allies were not extremists, but their criticisms “lacked ethics and were without clear evidence,” Chanrath said.

“So it is not a solution to use all these words,” he said.

Another political commentator, Kim Sok, said the CPP was using the term extremism against the wrong groups — people who are advocating for free and fair elections and justice.

“Of course, the CPP most likely chooses the words extremist acts to use in destroying the politics of its rival and Cambodian people who really love democracy,” he said.

Analyst Seng Sary said the words may change but the intentions remained the same: to destroy the ruling party’s rivals.

“If one wants to eat a dog, one has to first accuse that dog of being crazy. Then one can kill that dog,” Sary said.

At the CPP meeting, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Hun Sen had announced that he would provide legal services for entertainment workers and IDPoor cards, but did not elaborate on these plans. Additionally, Agriculture Ministry official Yang Saing Koma relayed Hun Sen’s plans to send one agricultural expert to each of the country’s 1,652 communes to boost agricultural output.

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