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Hun Sen vows to fight foreign interference

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Cambodian leader under fire from US and EU for arrest of opposition leader and crackdown on critics

PHNOM PENH: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed yesterday to resist foreign interference, following international criticism of the arrest of his main rival for treason and a widening crackdown on his critics.

The United States and the European Union (EU) condemned the detention of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is accused of plotting with US support, and the steps against the media that forced the independent Cambodia Daily newspaper to shut yesterday.

"We cannot allow any group to destroy the peace we hold in our hands by being the puppets of foreigners," Mr Hun Sen said at the opening of a new mosque in Kampong Cham province.

Referring to the Khmer Rouge genocide that destroyed the country in the 1970s, he added: "We cannot allow foreigners to use Khmers to kill Khmers any more."

The 65-year-old is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who switched sides before it was driven out.

Opposition politicians, rights groups and independent media have come under growing pressure in the run-up to an election next year, in which Mr Hun Sen could face his greatest electoral challenge after more than three decades in power.

One of China's closest allies in the region, Mr Hun Sen has increasingly ignored criticism from Western donors, whose budget support is no longer as critical as during the early years of his rule, when Cambodia was little more than a failed state.

Mr Kem Sokha was arrested in a raid on his home early on Sunday.

"We don't know his condition, whether he's safe," his daughter Monovithya Kem said on Twitter yesterday.


The EU called for Mr Kem Sokha's release, as he is meant to have parliamentary immunity as an elected lawmaker.

"Along with recent actions by the authorities against non-profit organisations and some media organisations, this arrest suggests a further effort to restrict the democratic space in Cambodia," the EU said.

The US State Department expressed "grave concern" at Mr Kem Sokha's arrest on charges it said appear to be politically motivated. It said it is also worried about other curbs on media and civil society.

Spokesman Heather Nauert said the steps "raise serious questions about the government's ability to organise credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy".

Mr Hun Sen has steadily increased his rhetoric against the US, ending joint military exercises, expelling a US pro-democracy group and on Sunday accusing Washington of conspiring with Mr Kem Sokha.

The Cambodia Daily, which published its last edition yesterday, said it had been forced to close after being given one month to pay a crippling US$6.3 million (S$8.5 million) in back taxes.

Its final headline, on the arrest of Mr Kem Sokha, was "Descent Into Outright Dictatorship". - REUTERS