Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy was aboard a plane to Asia, a senior party official said Friday, a day after he was blocked from taking a flight to Thailand, from where he hopes to return to his home country from exile to lead protests against the three-decade rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy president Mu Sochua told RFA’s Khmer Service that CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy had boarded a flight from Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport to an undisclosed location in Asia, and that the party’s plans for him and other senior leaders to enter Cambodia on Saturday, despite threats of arrest, “have not changed.”
“By tomorrow, Nov. 9, we will be together and move forward to Cambodia and the Thai border, until we reach the end of our plan,” she said.
When asked whether Thursday’s events, which included Sam Rainsy being prevented from boarding a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok as a result of what the CNRP chief said was Hun Sen’s interference, and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha announcing that he could not enter Cambodia from Thailand, Mu Sochua acknowledged that the CNRP might repatriate via a different country.
“It doesn’t mean that Sam Rainsy won’t go [to Thailand], but even if he doesn’t, we must act as leaders ourselves,” she said, calling on Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand to join with CNRP officials already in the country to meet CNRP supporters in Cambodia on Saturday at the checkpoint between Aranya Pratet in Thailand and Poipet in Cambodia.
“We must decide our own destiny,” she added.
Mu Sochua’s comments came as Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a directive informing all of its diplomatic and consular missions that her Cambodian passport, as well as those of 11 other CNRP officials, had been declared null and void. Sam Rainsy’s name was absent from the list.
The CNRP on Friday urged Cambodian authorities and neighboring countries to allow Sam Rainsy and other CNRP officials “free and peaceful entry” to Cambodia, and to “ensure their safety and free movement” there, mirroring a statement by 56 lawmakers from the European Parliament a day earlier.
Since Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia in 2012 to avoid a string of charges and convictions widely seen as politically motivated, Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 dissolved the CNRP for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
The opposition party announced in August that Sam Rainsy will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9–the country’s Independence Day—to lead a restoration of democracy, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia’s armed forces to join him, but Hun Sen has labeled the plan part of a rebellion and has vowed to arrest the opposition leader on sight.
Sam Rainsy faces 18 years in prison from earlier court rulings.
Last week, Cambodia’s civil aviation authority announced a ban on commercial airlines that serve the country from ferrying him and seven other CNRP officials, as well as his wife, who were charged along with the party chief in September with “attempting to stage a coup” in connection with his planned return.
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, and sought the cooperation of neighboring countries by issuing arrest warrants to ensure that the return is prevented.
UN and US concerned
On Friday, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, expressed “grave concerns” about a heightened political crackdown in the country, and called on Hun Sen’s government to respect the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and assembly.
She noted that at least 89 people have been charged with “plotting against the State” and at least 52 people have been arrested in 20 provinces—many in connection with voicing support for Sam Rainsy’s planned return—bringing to more than 200 the number of cases of harassment, and judicial actions against CNRP members or supporters since the start of 2019.
“Arrests based on exercising the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, through political discourse and commenting on public affairs are not permitted,” Smith said. “Cambodia must respect its international obligations.”
Amid the deployment of armed forces, she urged law enforcement officials to “apply non-violent means” ahead of Cambodia’s Independence Day, which also marks the eve of the Bon Om Touk Water Festival, when many people will be traveling to the capital Phnom Penh to take part in celebrations.
Smith also expressed concerns over the recent detention in nearby countries of CNRP members attempting to travel to Cambodia, and called for dialogue to resolve differences between Cambodia’s political stakeholders.
The Special Rapporteur’s comments came a day after the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh expressed support for the “reopening of political and civic space” and called for a “peaceful and inclusive process of national reconciliation in order to restore the genuine multiparty democracy and better respect fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Cambodian constitution.”
In an email to RFA, an embassy spokesperson said that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by expanding arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the CNRP, and by efforts to thwart the return of citizens seeking peaceful participation in the country’s political process—actions they labeled “an escalation in the suppression of the political opposition.”
“We call on authorities to protect and respect the human rights of all people in Cambodia and to take meaningful steps to reopen political and civic space,” the statement said, adding that members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should comply with obligations under international law to respect the principle of non-refoulement where individuals may be at risk of persecution or torture if returned.
The saga of Sam Rainsy’s return also elicited a response by U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who tweeted on Thursday that Hun Sen had “undermined democracy and rights” in Cambodia and demanded that he allow CNRP leaders to return over the weekend, adding that he had introduced to Congress a bipartisan resolution calling for their peaceful repatriation “so he knows we're watching.”
In response to the U.N. and U.S. statements, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said Friday that Cambodia’s government has no intention to negotiate with Sam Rainsy, adding that troop buildups along the border between Cambodia and Thailand had been made to “maintain political stability and security for the people” during celebrations to mark Independence Day and the Water Festival.
“There will be no dialogue with the rebels, who are led by Sam Rainsy,” he said.
“Once they are imprisoned, the issue will be resolved. Sam Rainsy is trying to return to Cambodia to incite soldiers to defect and the people to revolt.”
Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. in Geneva also issued a statement on Friday calling Rhona Smith’s comments “unbalanced and misleading,” saying that actions taken by the authorities against “wrongful deeds … cannot be construed as [a] political crackdown.”
The mission said that human rights “are not absolute,” but rather contingent on the respect of rights or reputations of others, and protection of national security or public order, and defended what it said were legal measures against those “who seek to oust the government through undemocratic means and to incite armed forces to rise against the people-elected government.”
Furthermore, the statement said, members of the armed forces have been deployed to maintain public order, protect the state, and prevent the staging of a coup.
The mission condemned Smith for overstepping her mandate by issuing a statement “which could mislead the public opinion and be viewed as an act of interfering into domestic jurisdiction of a sovereign state.”
Speaking to RFA, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang said that the statements from Sok Ey San and Cambodia’s mission in Geneva suggested that the CPP has no intention of initiating dialogue with the opposition, as urged by the U.S. and U.N., but he said that the CNRP will not abandon its goals.
“We will continue our efforts to make a positive change in Cambodia through nonviolent means,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.