Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday boasted of having spies in group chats and video conferences across the country — especially those discussing opposition plans.
In a speech to legal aid lawyers at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, Hun Sen addressed criticism that he was unconstitutionally tapping phone calls and other communications.
Last month, Hun Sen threatened the family of Ho Vann, an opposition politician living overseas, saying he had spied on a Zoom call in which Vann offered money to local supporters to join a protest.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen cautioned lawyers against saying the spying was unconstitutional since they didn’t know how he was obtaining recordings.
They should instead phrase their legal opinion as, “If he had truly tapped [the call], he would be in breach of the Constitution,” he advised.
“On Facebook, our people have been in groups so how can it be a mystery? You give orders on Facebook, and for every five people there is Hun Sen’s person in there. There is no need to doubt it,” Hun Sen said.
“There is nothing mysterious,” he continued. “In groups, there are a dozen people and these people send it to us. … They go and check in groups like this on Telegram, Zoom and Facebook.”
He also noted, however, that in addition to his web of spies, anti-terrorism laws did in fact allow him to tap communications.
Hun Sen has long boasted of his informants around the country, including in 2008 when he claimed to know that an opposition politician’s wife had spoken of gouging out Hun Sen’s eye.
“I have all the means to gather information. Even if you fart, I will know,” Hun Sen said at the time.
He has also claimed to have spies in the CNRP and other places, alleging that former opposition lawmaker Son Chhay was his “little spy” in 2006, and Radio Free Asia commentator Chun Chanboth was another in 2018.
However, Om Yeath, a former CNRP district councilor in Tbong Khmum province, laughed and said Hun Sen was just being ridiculous about having one in five group chat participants as his spy.
“It’s just his arrogance,” Yeath said.
“I am not worried about it,” he said. It’s possible that one in 1,000 could be a spy, but that was their choice, he said. “If there is someone who has done what he said, it is his business.”
“His remarks just want us to not trust each other and break us up,” Yeath said.
Khoeun Virath, a former CNRP commune chief in Phnom Penh, said Hun Sen’s claims of spying were anti-democratic.
“If he upholds democratic principles, he must respect the freedoms and rights of the people and not tap people’s phones and place spies to track down Khmer people and people who have protested to demand their rights and freedoms,” Virath said.
The former commune chief added that Hun Sen was the one acting scared.
“Even just people who come to protest for the release of their husbands, they monitor and track them down and place their spies,” he said. “He is scared after dissolving us, dismantling our structure and monitoring us — he can’t sleep.”
The CNRP was controversially dissolved in 2017, and continued supporters have faced widespread court action. This year, almost 30 CNRP activists have been arrested, according to party officials, and a group of women have been protesting every Friday for their husbands’ release.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen also made an oblique criticism of the French judicial system. Foreign countries have urged Cambodia to speed up its processing of court cases — the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha is still pending more than three years after his arrest — but the French are just as slow, he said.
“I filed a lawsuit for defamation” in 2019, he said, referring to a complaint against CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, who claimed Hun Sen was behind the death of former National Police chief Hok Lundy, who died in a helicopter crash in 2008.
“Now the court has set the date for the trial on September 1, 2022,” Hun Sen said.
Foreign critics urge Cambodia to more quickly process major cases, when the French court takes just as long despite its supposed independence and capacity, he said.
“Why do foreigners speak about the trial for some cases in Phnom Penh having to be speedy? … How could we force the court? If we have no capability to [force] the French court [to speed up], they have no capability to force the Phnom Penh [court to work faster] either, frankly speaking.”