Cambodian leader Hun Sen urged thousands of young supporters today to help the country avoid a fate similar to Syria's as he looks to assure victory in a future vote despite the absence of a viable opposition.
The prime minister has tightened his grip on dissent ahead of the July poll by backing the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last year following the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha on treason charges.
Speaking at the ancient Angkor complex in Siem Reap at an event organised by the ruling party-linked Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, Hun Sen dredged up the country's violent past and urged the youth to help maintain the "hard-won peace."
"Look at Syria, is that country able to organise things for happiness when it is being torn apart by war?" Hun Sen rose to power in 1985 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist movement whose policies contributed to the deaths of roughly a quarter of the population in the late 1970s.
A former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected, he has portrayed himself and his party as saviors of the country, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s he led the fight against his former comrades in a grinding civil war.
Though victory in July's vote is all but assured, the ruling Cambodian People's Party party is leaving no stone unturned, rallying the youth vote that the opposition capitalised on in 2013 when it won a chunk of seats in parliament that have now been redistributed to other parties.
"Hun Sen needs Cambodia's youth," said Sebastian Strangio, author of a book about the strongman.
"Even though the CPP is likely to sail through July's election mostly unopposed, the long-term viability of CPP rule hinges on the party's ability to win the support of Cambodia's young generation."
Today's event was held at 12th century Bayon temple to mark the start of festivals to ring in the Cambodian New Year. Some who attended were hesitant to talk about the election but seemed to absorb Hun Sen's message.
"We are afraid of a civil war. We don't want it again in our country," said 26-year-old Pon Thon.
Event spokesman Som Ratana said the event was not political and described it as a "platform for youth to participate, to love culture and to preserve and develop the country's rich culture."
Cambodia's most visited site has served as the backdrop to ruling party activities in the past.
In December, thousands of monks joined Hun Sen Sunday for a ceremony in Angkor Wat that lauded "political stability" after the CNRP was dissolved.
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