Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Authorities deny rumors of Sar Kheng political negotiations, open investigation into the spread of misinformation

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks with National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun at an event at the Interior Ministry. Picture taken on February 16, 2021. CamboJA/​ Pring Samrang
Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks with National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun at an event at the Interior Ministry. Picture taken on February 16, 2021. CamboJA/​ Pring Samrang

Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng traveled to France solely for a medical visit, his son said Monday, denying rumors that the Interior Minister was meeting exiled opposition politicians.

Authorities said they are investigating who spread false information regarding the trip.

Sar Sokha, the son of Sar Kheng, wrote on his official Facebook page on August 30 that his father’s trip was purely a medical visit, and included no meeting with any politicians.

“As for the false statements made by these politicians, they are just fabrications to mislead national and international opinion for the benefit of their political interests and those of their allies, especially as a message to find a way to negotiate with the CPP,” he said.

Social media stories claiming Sar Kheng met with the former opposition president Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-exile in France, have been spreading in recent days. 

Sokha said the claims were intended to sow internal divisions within the Cambodian People’s Party.

“This clearly reflects the character of unethical politicians in dishonest intentions, distorting falsehoods, polluting society and the political environment in Cambodia,” he said.  “In particular, it has been slandering and placing a poisonous blame on Samdech Kralahom Sar Kheng.”

Sar Kheng left Cambodia for France on August 22 for two weeks and is expected to return on September 5, according to an announcement made by his cabinet.

The Ministry of Interior had previously denied reports claiming Sar Kheng was planning to meet informally with former CNRP officials.

On Sunday, Sam Rainsy posted about the minister on his Facebook page, saying that “the formation of a National Unity Government with the participation of Sar Kheng is an idea that makes sense”.  Rainsy later posted another message saying Sar Kheng is the “middleman” for political negotiations, though he said nothing about a meeting.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Khieu Sopheak, told CamboJA that authorities were investigating Facebook accounts that had run disinformation regarding a meeting and already identified those who spread the false information.

“They are not in the country but wherever they run, we already know their identities and we know that they are from Tbong Khmum province,” he said. “They are just like a peacock that always forgets the trap, but the trap never forgets the peacock.”

Democratic Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun said Rainsy’s Facebook message appears to be mere political rhetoric, but the strong reaction by the government suggests they remain frightened of the opposition.

“All kinds of his political messages are influencing the political situation in the country. If the authorities use excessive measures to crack down on those who just share the original article from someone, it is a [violation of] freedom of speech,” he said. “But if the person creates the [dis]information himself, it is a fabrication of fake information that can face to some extent of legality.”

He said while there are still no channels open for political negotiation, opposition groups abroad will try to do what they can, and it will make it difficult for political conflicts to be resolved if they continue to act without goals and strategies.

Seng Sary, a social researcher, said that Rainsy’s message, saying “Sar Kheng is the middleman” could simply mean that the deputy prime minister would be the one to facilitate a political compromise.

“Sam Rainsy is taking this opportunity to catch Sar Kheng to bring about political change as the commune elections approach,” he said. “If his trip to France is for a medical check-up and Rainsy manipulates the thing, it creates suspicion between Sar Kheng and Prime Minister Hun Sen or creates mistrust in the party, but if his trip for a different purpose, I think Sar Kheng is best suited for political compromise.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the statements show the dissolved opposition party is an outlaw group intending to cause internal divisions in the CPP, which is not possible.

“They are trying to split the CPP but their group themselves has already split up instead,” he said. “There is no way to form an illegal government, and no one will join, so illegal rebels are constantly creating disinformation to pollute society and the CPP has nothing to do with these illegal rebels.”