Activists with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remain loyal to the party’s leaders and are patiently waiting for their return from exile next month, despite a widening government crackdown that has seen dozens arrested and charged in recent weeks, a party official said Wednesday.
Suon Chamroeun, a former CNRP official based in Battambang province, told RFA’s Khmer Service that while authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP supporters since August, when the party announced acting president Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, party activists are silently organizing in preparation for his repatriation.
“Not many local CNRP activists have so far defected to the ruling [Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)], even if while the latter has pressured them to confess and resign from the CNRP,” he said.
“This means that the CNRP remains resilient and can make change happen on Nov. 9.”
The CNRP says Sam Rainsy is returning to lead a “restoration of democracy” in Cambodia, following the arrest of party president Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the CNRP two months later for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
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.
Sam Rainsy has called on supporters and members of the armed forces to join him on his return, but Hun Sen and other government leaders have vowed to arrest the CNRP chief as soon as he sets foot inside the country, where he is wanted on a number of charges and convictions widely seen as politically motivated—including most recently for “plotting a coup” in connection with next month’s plan.
Police have made multiple arrests of Sam Rainsy’s supporters in recent weeks, bringing to at least 46 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and at least 182 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to the mistreatment. At least five activists are currently in hiding amid the crackdown.
On Wednesday, Sorn Sovannthet, a CNRP operations staffer based in Phnom Penh, told RFA that party activists from various localities around the country “contact me on a daily basis, defying threats of all kinds from authorities,” and said they are “waiting for a green light” from their leaders in exile, at which point they will “organize en masse to receive them.”
“There are plenty of forces from the CNRP and our compatriots,” he said, adding that they “can no longer tolerate the sufferings they are enduring, especially those committed by this illegitimate Phnom Penh regime that keeps violating the law through arbitrary arrests and detentions.”
“Despite condemnation from the international community, the government’s authorities continue [the arrests]. These latest developments will bolster the CNRP’s case in the future.”
The comments by Suon Chamroeun and Sorn Sovannthet came as CNRP officials in Thailand said that party supporters taking refuge abroad from Hun Sen’s crackdown are planning to return to Cambodia ahead of Nov. 9 to assist in preparations ahead of the repatriation of senior CNRP leaders.
‘Protecting the country’
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, government spokesman Phay Siphan defended the arrests and questioning of CNRP activists who have voiced support for Sam Rainsy’s return as part of a bid to protect the country from a coup d’état.
“This is not an exercise of political rights or freedom of expression,” he said.
“The government will not hesitate to suppress [supporters] at all costs, as we are obliged to protect the country and maintain peace.”
But Soeung Senkarona, a spokesperson for local rights group ADHOC, said that Cambodia’s political atmosphere is becoming increasingly volatile, with not only CNRP activists losing the right to voice their opinions, but regular citizens also engaged in self-censorship out of fear that they might be accused of treason.
“I hear a lot of concerns about the tension in our political situation in Cambodia,” he said.
“I predict that there will be an increasing number of restrictions which, in turn, will further raise concerns within the international community regarding the shrinking space for human rights in the country.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.