Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the construction of a new bridge from the capital’s Koh Pich island to the under-construction Koh Norea satellite city by seemingly threatening the local family of former CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann, living in exile overseas.
Hun Sen accused Vann of orchestrating ongoing activism among CNRP supporters in Cambodia three years after the party was banned.
“You should stop, Vann. Your wife and children are in Phnom Penh,” Hun Sen said. “You are crazy. Be careful — your wife and children cannot sleep well, and must be frightened. If you can stop, you should stop.”
“Hopefully, [his wife] Her Excellency Ho Vann does not act as a distributor of money to the local rebels, frankly speaking,” he said.
Hun Sen added that he had been spying on opposition Zoom calls. Vann had spoken to local supporters about paying them to attend a protest on Friday at the Chinese Embassy, he alleged.
“On that day, Vann [asked for] additional forces and [offered to] give an additional $200. … You think that through Zoom, people cannot recognize your voice? I want to play it for Vann to hear it,” Hun Sen said. “It’s always in my pocket, generally. This is Vann’s voice.”
Vann, 73, is a long-time opposition politician, a member of the Sam Rainsy Party until the party merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP. He is currently living in the U.S.
“You must know that your wife and children are in Phnom Penh,” Hun Sen continued. “You are the mastermind of the betrayals so why not take action against the betrayers inside, because the betrayers inside received orders from their boss. So the authorities or courts take action — it is the right thing to do according to legal procedure.”
Hun Sen also extended his threats to another unnamed official. “Another man must be careful with his wife [too], when selling at the market [she] must be careful.”
Last week, a CNRP activist was attacked with a brick while walking near Phnom Penh’s Chak Angre Market in the morning. The man, Din Varin, 48, remains in a serious condition a week later, with no progress in the police investigation.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said Hun Sen’s words were not a threat if one listened to the whole context.
“We should not quote only that part. We have to look at what he said from the beginning to the end,” Malin said. “If we take only that part as his comment, it will be a different story.”
Malin said Hun Sen was merely clarifying the legal aspects of the arrests of protesters on Friday. Vann’s plan to cause a disturbance in Phnom Penh was a crime, so those who participated in it were also legally liable, Malin explained.
“Even his family could be held legally responsible if they participated in the illegal plan — this is what he wanted to mention,” he said. “So this is not a threat and it is just a reminder about the legal aspects.”
Political analyst Meas Nee disagreed. The prime minister’s remarks reminded him of a Khmer Rouge saying: “When any official or person is suspected or observed, the whole [family] should be frightened.”
“Because the Khmer Rouge, when they killed, they killed them all,” Nee explained. “It shocked [me] to hear that remark and it should not [be said].”
He said a leader must have scruples about involving family and children.
Nee also compared the government’s increasing surveillance with the Khmer Rouge and its “pineapple eyes” — a phrase suggesting it watched everything.
“As you know, the government is strengthening its spying and surveillance of the people that they consider as color revolutionaries or [trying to] topple the government,” he said. “It is not strange in any government that when they know many people are increasingly unhappy with them, the spy network takes deep root to protect themselves.”
Leaking such intercepted messages was a way to exert control, he added.
“This is the government’s tool to tell the public that all communications, in any means, the government can track it,” Nee said. “It is a message to other people that they know everything anywhere.”
A representative for Zoom, when asked about Hun Sen’s claims, pointed VOD to a paragraph in the company’s “Government Requests Guide”:
“We have not built a mechanism to decrypt live meetings for any purpose, including lawful intercept, and we do not have the means to insert our employees or others into meetings without that person being visible as a participant,” it says. “As such, we do not collect or maintain information related to meeting content unless requested by the meeting host, for example, to record and store the meeting in our cloud.”
Kim Sok, an analyst living in exile in Finland, said the prime minister could be concerned about a popular uprising like in neighboring Thailand.
“Hun Sen is worried that people will stand up to hold mass protests like in Thailand, which could weaken the power of the Hun family,” Sok said.
On Friday, about 15 protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy — after CNRP vice president Mu Sochua earlier said there would be 300 participants — leading to the arrests of three women.
Lim San, 57, Ton Nimol, 40, and Yoy Srey Mom, 52, were charged with incitement to disturb social security and placed in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin said on Monday.
Sochua has not replied to questions about Hun Sen’s allegation that the protesters were paid, though reporters saw some participants receiving rice at the end of the day.
Licadho monitoring manager Am Sam Ath said the three arrested women were activists for the banned CNRP, and did not hold any official positions.
Srey Mom’s daughter Khmum Sreyleak, 30, said she was worried about her mother’s health in prison.
“They want us to live with fear and injustice,” Sreyleak said. “It’s so painful that they’ve pressed the charges against my mother like this. … It is tough, and I can hardly express [myself] over what they have done to my mother.”
Updated at 7:55 p.m. with a response from Zoom.