Thai opposition critics misrepresent Cambodia PM's speech as 'war declaration'

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As Thailand geared up for a general election in May 2023, a video surfaced in social media posts that misleadingly claimed it shows Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declaring war with the country. The posts mocked a Thai opposition politician who called to cut the army's budget. However, Hun Sen did not declare war with Thailand in his speech, which he gave at a graduation ceremony in August 2022. The leader in fact urged voters to keep the Cambodian opposition out of power, claiming they would bring the country to war.

The video was shared on Facebook on April 14, with Thai text superimposed on the clip reading: "Hun Sen declares (he) will wage war with Thailand".

"'Why do we need soldiers?' said Pita," reads the post, referring to Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Thailand's opposition Move Forward Party, which has campaigned to reduce the size of the country's armed forces.

The Harvard-educated businessman's progressive party is seeking to uproot Thailand's conservative military and royalist establishment in the general election in May 14.

"Hun Sen now vows to go to war against Thailand and Vietnam," the post adds, warning that Cambodia would "retake" the Thai island of Koh Kut, also known as Koh Kood, which is close to the country's eastern border with Cambodia.

"Instead of moving the country forward, Hun Sen brought war to the country. Thai politicians ranting about the inferiority of the military: if there is a war, will you go out and help the soldiers?" it says in an apparent gibe at Pita's pledge to downsize the army.

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on April 27, 2023

The video was viewed thousands of times in similar posts on Twitter, including here, here, and here, which misleadingly claimed it showed Hun Sen declaring war on Thailand and Vietnam.

"We need to buy submarines. We cannot wait any longer. The Southeast Asian war will start soon," one Facebook user commented.

Another comment apparently aimed at Pita said: "Just look! The neighbour wants to go to war. That's what the soldiers are for, or would you rather go to war yourself?"

Graduation speech from 2022

A reverse image search and keywords searches found the full video of Hun Sen's speech, which he gave at a graduation ceremony at Asia Euro University in Phnom Penh on August 23, 2022.

The footage was streamed live on the leader's official Facebook page (archived link) and posted by the university (archived link).

According to an AFP journalist in Phnom Penh who watched the Khmer-language speech, Hun Sen said that a war between Cambodia and Thailand or Vietnam would be "unavoidable" if an opposition party came to power.

At the video's 1:02:57 mark -- which shows the same clip shared in misleading social media posts -- he says: "I said the war in Cambodia is unavoidable. If the Cambodian People’s Party does not hold power, war will erupt. I dare to say such. Why? There are two main factors. Wait and see.

"The first factor is to confiscate [property] from rich people to give to the poor, so an internal war will erupt. Nobody would let you confiscate their property. The second factor is [they] are ready to fight to get back lost land, so the war between Cambodia and Vietnam or Thailand is unavoidable."

Cambodia has separate border disputes with Thailand and Vietnam. The dispute with Thailand led to tens of thousands of people being displaced in fighting in 2011 over a patch of land around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple on the Thai border, which the United Nations' top court ruled in 2013 belonged to Cambodia.

A series of skirmishes between Cambodia and Vietnam along their borders in 1970s eventually led to a bilateral agreement in 2006 in which they decided to demarcate their contentious border with hundreds of poles.

AFP found no official reports that Hun Sen declared war on Thailand or Vietnam.