PHNOM PENH - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday that if Western countries impose threatened economic sanctions on his country, it would cause the death of the country's political opposition.
Hun Sen, speaking at a road groundbreaking ceremony, was referring mostly to plans by the European Union to cancel an agreement giving imports from Cambodia preferential duty-free status.
The EU began the process of ending the agreement after last July's general election, in which Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won all 125 National Assembly seats. The EU, along with other critics, charged the election was unfair and unfree because the sole credible opposition party was dissolved in November 2017 by Cambodia's Supreme Court, generally seen as being under the government's influence.
The U.S. and Germany have already instituted some diplomatic sanctions against Cambodia because of its repressive political climate.
Hun Sen said without elaborating that if Western powers seek to punish Cambodia with sanctions, they would kill the country's opposition.
In an effort to soften his authoritarian image and restore Western approval, Hun Sen has initiated several post-election measures billed as efforts toward political reconciliation. The most notable one allows 118 members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to apply for the lifting of 5-year bans on taking part in politics that were imposed when their party was dissolved.
However, it appears that most of them have no intention to apply, and Hun Sen has said that the ban would not be lifted for those who were uncooperative. One of the party's former leaders, Sam Rainsy, has said he expects Western pressure on Hun Sen's government to be the best hope of restoring democracy.
"I don't want to hear any more threats of imposing sanctions but I want to tell you clearly that your imposing sanctions against Cambodia would be instrumental in killing the opposition political party," Hun Sen said. He urged those planning sanctions to "please come to talk with us as equal partners to ease the situation."
Hun Sen, who was speaking on the anniversary of his becoming prime minister in 1985, repeated his frequent contention that Western nations have no right to criticize his government with accusations of suppressing human rights and democracy.
He said he led Cambodia out of war and poverty after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed 40 years ago, the country's "most difficult period."
"Do whatever you want, but don't forget that then you will have no longer have the right to advise me about democracy and human rights, if you really do impose sanctions," he said.
Hun Sen has said several times recently that applying sanctions would be the third mistake Western powers would make in dealing with Cambodia. The first, he said, was in 1970 when U.S.-backed Cambodian Gen. Lon Nol toppled then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power, leading to a bitter civil war that ended with the communist Khmer Rouge taking power and causing the deaths of about 1.7 million people during its brutal 1975-79 rule.
He said the second was when Western nations supported the Khmer Rouge to hold the country's seat at the United Nations after they were ousted from power by a Vietnamese invasion and took part in a coalition resisting Vietnam's occupation.