UPDATED at 4:25 P.M. ET on 2019-11-07
The plans of Cambodian opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and another top party official remained in limbo Thursday after the two were blocked from traveling to locations in neighboring countries they hoped to use as springboards for a return home from self-imposed exile this weekend.
Sam Rainsy, the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said he was prevented from boarding a Thai Airways flight from Paris, France to Thailand’s capital Bangkok, while CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua was detained for around 19 hours while attempting to travel to neighboring Malaysia, which officials there said followed a request by Cambodia to deport her.
Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service that a Thai Airways employee at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport had informed him the company’s management had blocked his passage to Thailand, but said he had purchased another air ticket to an undisclosed location in a neighboring country, and would “find a new way … to enter Cambodia” to lead protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
“The [ticketing] agency of Thai Airways told me that they received an order from higher up, saying that they cannot allow me to fly to Thailand, because they know that if I go to Thailand then I will continue on to Cambodia immediately,” he said, adding that the decision was made based on “political reasons.”
“We are now planning to buy plane tickets from a new airway, then we will take a flight to a neighboring country, other than Thailand … and we will prepare a new way to enter Cambodia from that country.”
Sam Rainsy alleged that Hun Sen had ordered someone within his government to “change the date for my scheduled flight … to Nov. 9,” the day he has vowed to return home by, which would make it impossible for him to meet with supporters who have said they will join him at a checkpoint in Poipet, Cambodia to escort him across the border from Thailand.
The opposition leader did not elaborate on how he knew that Hun Sen was responsible for changing the ticket, but said that he “will not delay [my return] for very long,” as he is in regular contact with CNRP supporters and activists in Cambodia to make new plans.
Requests by RFA to Thai Airways for comment on Sam Rainsy’s flight status went unanswered Thursday, but the Associated Press cited a Thai Airways employee as saying that he was not allowed to board a flight from Paris to Bangkok because his booking was not valid.
The employee, who declined to give his name, said a valid ticket had not been issued in Sam Rainsy's name and that the economy class section for Thursday's flight was full, although a booking in Sam Rainsy's name had been made for a new flight on Saturday.
Sam Rainsy had posted a photo of what he claimed to be his airline ticket on his Facebook page to show that he had confirmed a booking for a flight on Thursday, which included his reference and ticket numbers—information that could be used to access and potentially modify his flight.
Thai Airways blocked Sam Rainsy from boarding its flight a week after Thailand refused entry to 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.
It also came a week after Cambodia’s civil aviation authority issued a directive banning 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, 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.
Earlier on Thursday, Hun Sen dared Sam Rainsy to “board a plane directly to Cambodia,” despite the recent airline ban, saying the opposition leader can “freely land in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh,” and suggesting he isn’t being “genuine” about his plan to return to the country, where he faces 18 years in prison on convictions widely seen as politically motivated.
He also thanked governments in the region for refusing to allow the CNRP to use their countries as a base from which to enter Cambodia, saying they should “understand that we need to control the situation.”
Hun Sen suggested Sam Rainsy would not be allowed to enter Thailand and, referring to the opposition chief as a “dog,” said that until he ended his attempt to overthrow the government, “we will continue [to try to arrest him] because he has made his supporters the victims.”
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.
Amid Sam Rainsy’s failed bid to fly to Thailand, Malaysia allowed Mu Sochua to enter the country Thursday after detaining her for about 19 hours while questioning about her intentions, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters in parliament.
Saifuddin confirmed that Malaysia had received a request to deport Mu Sochua from the government of Cambodian strongman Hun Sen.
“We have received a request but we decide on our own,” he said, calling it “a normal request by a government that they may want us to send back certain number of people.”
Ahead of her release, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on Thursday that as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia was obligated to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other member states, according to a video posted by the Star Online newspaper.
“We don’t want them to use Malaysia as a base for struggle in other countries,” he said.
Mahathir said his government “wanted to deport her,” referring to Mu Sochua, but later sought “any country that can take her.”
“We don’t want to be at odds with other governments because this is not our affair,” he said. “It is their affair.”
Around nightfall Thursday, Malaysia Human Rights Commission Commissioner Jerald Joseph confirmed the release of Mo Sochua and two other Cambodian activists.
“Confirmed. Papers are being processed. All three will be released. I spoke to Sochua and she is OK,” Joseph told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
He also said Mu Sochua and two others would stay in Malaysia for three days before leaving to a third country.
“They are not going to return to Cambodia. They will stay in Kuala Lumpur for three days before heading out to a third country. That is all. I am not at a liberty to tell you more,” said Joseph to Benar.
Speaking to RFA after her release, Mu Sochua downplayed the events in Malaysia, saying she had traveled to the country to meet with Saifuddin and discuss the situation in Cambodia.
She said she was stopped from entering the country because she is on a “blacklist,” but that immigration officers “apologized and didn’t detain me.”
“They said they needed to conduct investigations and interviews about the reason I came to Malaysia,” she said, adding that CNRP leaders still plan to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9.
When asked about the incident in Kuala Lumpur, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that as a sovereign state, Malaysia makes its own decisions, but maintained that Mu Sochua is one of the orchestrators of a coup attempt.
He said that the Cambodian government’s priority is not to arrest Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders, but to “protect peace, stability, and public order.”
Thailand blocks Sam Rainsy
In Bangkok on Wednesday, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha cited the ASEAN regional bloc’s non-interference policy in announcing that Rainsy could not enter Cambodia from Thailand.
“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,” the former junta-leader turned elected premier told reporters in Bangkok.
“I have ordered this, so he won’t be able to enter the country.”
Teddy Baguilat of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said he hoped Malaysia’s move would inspire Thailand to rethink its decision.
“We welcome the Malaysian authorities' decision to allow Mu Sochua, as well as Cambodian youth activists Keith Ngoeum and Seang Leang Heng to enter the country,” the former Philippine member of parliament said, adding that they should not have been detained in the first place.
"We hope that this will inspire Thailand to allow Sam Rainsy into the country and all other ASEAN countries to respect people’s fundamental rights,” he said.
Malaysia detained the two other Cambodian activists on Monday while they waited to board a flight to Thailand.
Also on Thursday, a group of 56 members of the European Parliament called on the authorities of Cambodia and neighboring countries to permit Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders “free and peaceful entry” to their home country on Nov. 9 and to “ensure their safety and free movement when in the country.”
In a statement, the lawmakers expressed concern over recent actions of Cambodia’s government in harassing and detaining CNRP activists, deploying the armed forces, and making threats against Sam Rainsy of violence, and urged authorities against arresting the opposition leader on what they called “trumped up charges” if he and his colleagues cross in the country this weekend.
They called on Hun Sen and the government to allow Sam Rainsy to meet with supporters unhindered and to release Kem Sokha and all political prisoners, while urging the international community to ensure that Cambodia’s leadership respects human rights and implement a genuine pluralist political system.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service and BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.