Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday lifted a travel ban on former opposition chief Sam Rainsy, daring his long-time opponent to return to the country to face a criminal conviction observers have called politically motivated.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen ordered Council of Ministers’ secretary of state Tekreth Samrech to issue a letter notifying the National Police and the Immigration Department of the government’s decision to annul the travel ban, imposed on Oct. 12.
Yim Sovann, spokesperson for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), welcomed the decision, calling it a “positive sign” for the CNRP, but refrained from saying when his party’s former leader might return to Cambodia.
“Don’t think of other issues yet—let’s wait and see how things play out first, because this is a developing situation,” he said, adding that the party’s leadership is discussing how to proceed.
Sam Rainsy, who has remained abroad since late 2015 when a conviction he believed had been overturned by a royal pardon was revived, resigned as CNRP chief in February following the introduction of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party.
On Tuesday, during a call in show with RFA’s Khmer Service, Sam Rainsy vowed to return to Cambodia to face off against Hun Sen in next year’s general election and called on the prime minister to remove the travel ban, adding that he would “dare to be imprisoned and even face death … so long as our nation can live.”
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Ey San said Wednesday that the government decided to annul the travel ban after listening to the interview, and questioned whether the former opposition leader dared to return to face his conviction, now that Hun Sen had done as he requested.
“Sam Rainsy spoke last night in an interview with RFA … and everyone heard that he is not afraid [to face the court conviction],” he said.
“So now, he may return by boarding any plane he likes. Please return.”
Sok Ey San said that the CPP has “no plans to negotiate,” for the time being.
Hun Sen has repeatedly pursued defamation cases against Sam Rainsy, who has faced a total of seven lawsuits filed in Cambodian courts.
Game of chicken
Lu Lay Sreng, Cambodia’s former deputy prime minister and a former senior official of the royalist Funcinpec Party, told RFA it is time for Hun Sen to seek reconciliation between the opposition and ruling parties.
He said the ongoing spat is hurting Cambodia after successful June 4 commune elections, when the nation should be healing and making progress, instead of continuing to depend on foreign aid.
“It is time that the Khmers fully learn their lesson—enough is enough,” he said.
“We should learn to exist independently, since we always depend on others by begging for [assistance].”
Local political analyst Meas Ny called the lifting of the travel ban “a new political game of chicken” that the government is using to challenge Sam Rainsy.
He noted that if Sam Rainsy fails to uphold his pledge to return and possibly face jail time, his popularity will suffer.
“I think the move may benefit both sides,” he said, instead of just the CNRP.
“The CPP may silence its critics, since the party has been seen as treating Sam Rainsy badly and unfairly during the election.”
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.