The head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy will not be permitted to enter Cambodia through Thailand, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Wednesday, likely derailing his plans to return home from self-imposed exile later this week.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok, Prayuth cited Thailand’s obligations as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to refrain from meddling in the affairs of its neighboring nation, where Sam Rainsy hopes to lead a “restoration of democracy” through nonviolent protests on Nov. 9, but Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to arrest the CNRP’s acting president on sight.
“According to our commitment to ASEAN, we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism,” Prayuth said.
“I have ordered this, so he won’t be able to enter the country.”
Thailand may represent Sam Rainsy’s best chance as a country from which to launch his bid to reenter Cambodia. Other senior CNRP officials seeking to assist in preparations for his return have met with resistance in Malaysia and Indonesia, while Laos has indicated it will not allow passage for members of the opposition and Vietnam’s one-party Communist government is unlikely to support anyone advocating regime change.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service from Berlin, Germany, where he was scheduled to board a flight later on Wednesday to an undisclosed location, Sam Rainsy noted that there had been no “official response” from Thailand about his status, and said he is “still hopeful” that the Thai government will “soften its stance, in order to help restore democracy in Cambodia.”
But he said that he and other senior CNRP officials “are determined to return to Cambodia to help the Cambodian people,” adding that there are “many ways and means” through which to do so.
“Our intention is to gather with supporters at the Poipet checkpoint—the main border crossing into Cambodia [from Thailand’s Aranya Pratet township],” he said.
“Some people have already arrived and others will be arriving tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Everyone should be in place before Nov. 9, and in the morning we will walk into Cambodia.”
He slammed Hun Sen as a “coward” for harassing CNRP activists in Cambodia because “he is unable to do anything to me.”
“Hun Sen’s final day will come when millions of people and members of the armed forces stand up and turn against him in support of the CNRP,” he said.
Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia in 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated, and since his departure, authorities arrested CNRP president Kem Sokha on charges of “treason” in September 2017 and the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition party for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government two months later.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Since Sam Rainsy announced his intention to return to Cambodia along with several of the CNRP’s senior leaders, Hun Sen has labeled the plan part of a “coup attempt,” arresting and jailing the party’s supporters and activists within the country.
Hun Sen’s government has also militarized Cambodia’s border provinces and ordered the armed forces to attack any opposition gatherings held on the date of Sam Rainsy’s planned return, banned commercial airlines that serve the country from boarding the CNRP chief, and sought the cooperation of neighboring countries by issuing arrest warrants to ensure that the return is prevented.
Prayuth’s indication that Sam Rainsy will not be allowed into the country came a week after Thailand refused entry to CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua, citing “security concerns,” although she has told RFA that the party’s leadership was in negotiations with the Thai government to secure passage through the country.
Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Hor Nambora, confronted Mu Sochua as she held a press conference at a hotel in Jakarta to explain the CNRP’s plans, calling the opposition’s leaders “fugitives and criminals” because they had been convicted of plotting a coup. He accused her of misleading Indonesian authorities by traveling to the country on her U.S. passport, despite holding dual citizenship.
Speaking to reporters after the confrontation, Mu Sochua said that she and other CNRP supporters will “risk our lives entering Cambodia unarmed,” adding that the planned return is to protect democracy in the country, “not to carry out a coup d’etat.”
Following the press conference, Cambodia’s embassy issued a statement expressing concern that Indonesia had allowed Mu Sochua to enter the country to “conduct anti-Cambodian activities in Jakarta,” and calling on authorities to arrest her and “deport her to Cambodia immediately in the true spirit of ASEAN.”
Speaking to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, Mu Sochua said Hor Nambora had told her Cambodian police were in the hotel and that if she didn’t want to be arrested she should “leave Indonesia right away and not hold a press conference.”
“He said to the organizers that the press conference was not legal and he also called me a fugitive,” she said.
“He kept saying I didn't have the right to hold a press conference and that the police are here to arrest me. I started my press conference by saying that if I was in violation of any law, I would stop. I entered Indonesia legally and I was confident that the Indonesian government wouldn’t arrest me.”
Mu Sochua later flew to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, but was prevented from entering the country, although authorities did not provide RFA with an official reason for the refusal. She was scheduled to meet with representatives from Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but faced the possibility of having to return to Jakarta at the time of publishing.
Malaysia’s blocking of Mu Sochua came two days after authorities in the country detained two Cambodian opposition activists, including an asylum seeker, while they waited to board a flight to Thailand. London-based Amnesty International called on Malaysia late on Tuesday to immediately release the pair and ensure they are not deported home, where it said they “face arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Cambodia exports repression
Prayuth’s comments elicited a strongly worded rebuke from former Philippine lawmaker and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) board member Teddy Baguilat, who called the decision “outrageous” and said it would effectively prevent the opposition leader from returning to Cambodia.
“The decision is solely based on political grounds and is a blatant attempt to silence voices of the Cambodian opposition,” Baguilat said.
“Prime Minister Prayuth said he made the decision according to his commitment to ASEAN but committing to ASEAN should mean championing democracy rather than supporting repressive regimes. It is time that ASEAN countries realize that it is more sustainable and in its own interest to promote democracy and human rights within the bloc rather than give free reign to unpredictable and reckless despotic leaders.”
Baguilat also responded to Hor Nambora’s disruption of the press conference by Mu Sochua—who is also an APHR board member—by urging ASEAN leaders to refrain from acquiescing to Hun Sen’s demands.
“Cambodian authorities are exporting their repressive tactics and intolerance overseas,” he said, adding that “ASEAN leaders should stand firm and ensure that they do not violate people's fundamental rights on behalf of others.”
Detentions, shows of force
Also on Wednesday, authorities in Cambodia continued a crackdown on the opposition, arresting Phnom Penh-based CNRP activist Chea Chiv, Battambang province-based CNRP activist Srey Chandara, and Koh Kong province-based CNRP activist Hum Srea.
Hum Srea’s brother, Hum Srun, told RFA the arrest was “unjustified,” as his brother had already quit politics and was working as a construction worker.
Seoung Sen Karona, a spokesman for local human rights group Adhoc, told RFA that “arbitrary arrests” by the police of CNRP supporters in recent months have left party members frightened of expressing their political views.
“Some of the activists are so afraid that feel forced to resign from politics and ‘confess’ [their part in supporting Sam Rainsy’s return] so they will be pardoned,” he said.
Meanwhile, villagers living along Cambodia’s border with Thailand told RFA Wednesday that authorities have deployed significantly greater numbers of security forces in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces.
One villager in Banteay Meanchey, who declined to be named over concerns for their security, told RFA residents are frustrated seeing soldiers sporting state of the art equipment and weapons along the border in advance of Sam Rainsy’s attempt to return to Cambodia, saying the move was a “waste of the national budget” and had raised tensions in the area.
“The government has deployed the military to intimidate the people,” the source said, adding that they are “sure there will be bloodshed on Nov. 9.”
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Chhay Kim Khoeun confirmed that police have been deployed along the border to prevent Sam Rainsy from returning, saying the move is warranted because the opposition party “wants to topple the government.”
The police are only targeting pro-opposition party members and “not regular people,” he said.
The U.S. State Department told RFA it is “deeply concerned” by the ongoing arrests and intimidation of CNRP supporters in Cambodia in a statement on Wednesday, calling the actions “an escalation in suppression of the political opposition … [that] raise concerns about respect for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression under the Cambodian constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
“We call on authorities to stop harassment of the political opposition, protect the constitutional and human rights of all people in Cambodia, and take meaningful steps to reopen political and civic space,” the statement said, adding that all parties should urgently work towards a peaceful process of dialogue and national reconciliation.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.