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PM Hun Sen threatens Cambodian opposition after shoe-throwing incident in Washington

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen blasted a man who threw a shoe at him last week in Washington, saying that if the U.S. fails to condemn him, then similar attacks against his political opponents in Cambodia would be justified.

“If the U.S considers shoe-throwing as freedom of expression, it is encouraging [the practice] in other countries,” said Hun Sen, a strongman who has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and who allows little opposition or criticism.

“Now I am concerned for the safety of the opposition party leaders,” he said.

“Here we can also throw shoes at opposition party leaders’ heads in Cambodia,” he said.

As the 69-year-old Hun Sen prepared to meet supporters in Washington last week on the eve of a summit of U.S.-Southeast Asian leaders, a retired Cambodian soldier, Ouk Touch, flung a shoe that whizzed by his head and missed him. The incident at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel on May 11 was caught on video and went viral on social media.

Ouk Touch, 72, a resident of California, last week told RFA that he had been planning the attack for quite some time and he hoped that Hun Sen would be humiliated.  He said family members died in a 1997 grenade attack on rival politicians in Hun Sen’s governing coalition that has been widely attributed to the prime minister’s supporters.

He was able to talk his way into the group of Hun Sen supporters outside the hotel. He said Hun Sen’s bodyguards jumped toward him and attempted to beat him, but U.S. security officials intervened and urged him to leave the scene.

Scene of an incident in which former Cambodian soldier Ouk Touch threw a shoe at visiting Prime Minister Hun Sen in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2022. Credit: Screengrab of official TV.
Scene of an incident in which former Cambodian soldier Ouk Touch threw a shoe at visiting Prime Minister Hun Sen in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2022. Credit: Screengrab of official TV.

Upon his return to Cambodia from the U.S. summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Hun Sen lashed out at Ouk Touch, saying the attack was premeditated.

He said he would not be sending a diplomatic note to the U.S. over the issue, but promised that Ouk Touch would be prosecuted if he were to return to Cambodia.

In February opposition activist Sam Sokha was released after serving a four-year prison term for throwing her shoe at a poster of Hun Sen and sharing it on social media. She is among scores of activist jailed in a sweeping crackdown on opponents of Hun Sen, the media and civic society groups that begin in 2017.

Sam Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen “should be more patient and should not imprison people without finding out the reason” they protest, she said.

“Pertaining to my case, [he] should have asked me why I did it. He should have tried to find out what the cause of the dissatisfaction is.”

Throwing a shoe is nothing compared to the suffering of innocent people under Hun Sen’s rule, Khmer-American human rights lawyer Seng Theary told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“It is an individual’s frustration, but the incident represents many people’s feelings,” she said.

Exiled political analyst Kim Sok told RFA he is saddened that Hun Sen is taking the incident seriously and has allowed it to incite hatred among people and dilute Cambodia’s diplomatic relationships.

The analyst, who took asylum in Finland to avoid arrest in the 2017 crackdown, said he feared concern Hun Sen’s supporters would start attacking opposition leaders. Many opposition figures are in hiding, exile or prison.

“Any comment from Hun Sen should not be taken for granted. It is incitement. It will happen because Hun Sen is an influential figure managing all issues in the country,” he said.

 Translate by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.