An academic living in Thailand who was told last week by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen “you will be shot” over a political analysis he posted on Facebook received a reprieve on Monday, when the strongman called the work “reasonable and acceptable” and cancelled an arrest warrant for the scholar.
In a Facebook post Monday, Hun Sen said a Cambodia Daily interview with Bangkok-based professor Seng Sary had clarified that a July Facebook post about forming a national reconciliation government was hypothetical, and not a call to form a rival power center.
“I appeal to the court to consider cancelling the arrest warrant for Dr. Seng Sary. In the meantime, I encourage Dr. Seng Sary to continue to perform social issues analysis for the study and research benefits of the social science. I also appeal to Dr. Seng Sary’s wife, children and parents to stop worrying about this,” Hun Sen said.
On Friday Hun Sen had ordered Seng Sary arrested for writing the Facebook comment in which he described forces that could lead to change in the political landscape in Cambodia, which has been ruled by Hun Sen since 1985.
The alignment of the six forces—opposition party supporters, voters and victims of social injustice, youth, internal issues in the ruling party, the support of the armed forces, and the support of the international community—could bring about a national reconciliation government, Seng Sary wrote.
“There is an arrest warrant for Dr. Seng Sary because you support six conditions to establish a shadow government overseas,” an angry Hun Sen said Friday, likening the idea to the National Unity Government that has risen in Myanmar to counter the military regime that took power in a February coup.
“The court has already issued the warrant. I am telling you if you are involved with an armed force, or overseas government, you must be arrested,” he said and urged Seng Sary to remove the post.
“We need to ask him about the six points to establish an overseas government. You have encouraged people to form it. You will be jailed. Not only will you be jailed for this so-called rebel movement, you will be shot. If they see you, you will be shot,” Hun Sen said.
Seng Sary. who had clarified that he does not support forming a government in exile but merely laid out hypothetical conditions for one, told RFA’s Khmer Service Monday it was a good sign that Hun Sen is listening to the opinions of analysts and intellectuals, but he did not feel completely safe yet.
“I have not seen the court drop my case yet, so it is difficult for me to decide whether I should return to Cambodia, because it has to do with my safety,” Seng Sary said.
“I hope I can get my charges dropped soon,” he said.
Seng Sary said he was fortunate to be in Thailand when Hun Sen ordered his arrest. Otherwise, he would never have been able to escape or explain to Hun Sen the meaning of his analysis.
“I hope that in the future, the head of government will more carefully consider posts on social media… Let the government have a high understanding of contradictory views or political views that people want express.”
Political analyst Kim Sok, who lives in exile in Finland, said that Seng Sary is right to remain in Thailand and act with caution about anything Hun Sen says.
“He did request that the court revoke Seng Sary’s arrest warrant, but who knows? When Seng Sary returns to Cambodia and if he is arrested, Hun Sen could say he only made the request to cancel the arrest order, but it is up to the court because the court is independent. So be careful with this game,” Kim Sok said.
RFA was unable to reach Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin for comment on Hun Sen’s stance. The spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Plang Sophal was also not available.
Chak Sopheap, the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, welcomed the suspension of the arrest warrant and urged the government to be more open to intellectuals and political analysts.
“There must be a guarantee of full freedom of expression, and there should be no indictment or arrest just because citizens are expressing their opinions,” she said.
Some Facebook users wrote in support of Hun Sen’s change of heart, while others pointed out that the Cambodian leader has broken promises to activists in exile, saying they could return to the country without fear of arrest, but arresting them anyway.
The exchange with Seng Sary came a little than a week after Hun Sen Hun Sen crashed a Zoom strategy session of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which Hun Sen had banned in 2017.
“I wanted to send a clear message to the rebels that there are people of Hun Sen everywhere,” the prime minister said of his intervention in the Zoom call.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.