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Three Months From Elections, ‘War of Words’ Begins

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures after casting his ballot in local elections at Ta Khmau town, in Kandal province, file photo.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures after casting his ballot in local elections at Ta Khmau town, in Kandal province, file photo.

WASHINGTON DC - Political analysts say Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy have already begun a war of words ahead of the national elections, with the opposition trying to cast the ruling party as former Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen claiming that an election loss for his party will bring war.

Analysts say this is familiar ground, as the country heads toward the July election, but it can also be damaging.

“The ruling party and the opposition have begun their different methods of political campaigning,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

For example, the opposition continues to focus on social justice, while the ruling party talks more strictly about the economy and growth, he said. And while some of the messages are new, both sides seem to have settled into the same messages that have served them in the past.

In a recent speech, Hun Sen said war will occur if the opposition wins the election. “Internal war and war between neighboring countries are inevitable,” he said. “Just like the Pol Pot regime.”

Hun Sen’s recent threat is an old tactic, Koul Panha said. And it could have some effect, especially on potential voters who lived through the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars that followed.

For his part, Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, has begun pointing to the involvement of current government officials in the Khmer Rouge.

Schanley Kuch, a political analyst in Maryland, said the exchanges between the two party leaders both go beyond what needs to be said.

“Sam Rainsy himself is not a court,” he said. “But this is a political measure that he raises, and this makes Prime Minister Hun Sen fall back in the middle of the political arena.” That creates a “chess game,” where Hun Sen then makes claims such as the threat of war, and where no one wins.

“The Hun Sen regime is a regime that makes people afraid, and doesn’t make people love it at all,” he said. “People don’t love the government, but they are doing their work because of their fear. That contradicts good leadership and contradicts the process of a developing country moving forward.”

The exchanges between both leaders comes three months ahead of the July 28 polls.

This election, in particular, has come under intense scrutiny by the West, human rights groups and election monitors.

Sam Rainsy is in exile, facing imprisonment if he returns to Cambodia, and critics say the National Election Committee has implemented policies and regulations that favor the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

And as Hun Sen’s recent speech demonstrates, the ruling party has broad control of the media for distributing its election messages.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay says the latest election environment is weaker than that put in place by Untac in the 1990s. “It is not as good as the one Untac organized, so we have to learn from that and reform,” he said.

Under Untac, 20 different parties had access to the media, especially radio, which they could use before the campaigning even began, Lao Mong Hay said.

That said, true political violence has declined, though intimidation still exists, he said.

“I just want to ask people, who have been made afraid many times, and for a long time, we should not be frightened by war at all,” he said. “We should create a peaceful and free atmosphere and allow people to vote according to their will.”