Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has requested a special “intervention” order from Cambodia’s king and prime minister to allow him to return home to pay his last respects to the country’s former monarch, who passed away earlier this week.
The 63-year-old president of the National Rescue Party (NRP) has sent letters to this effect to King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen as Cambodia plunged into mourning following the death Monday of former King Norodom Sihanouk.
Sam Rainsy could be imprisoned on his return following convictions for various offenses he has said were part of a campaign of political persecution.
"On the occasion of national mourning, as a Cambodian citizen, I think it is important for me to strengthen national reconciliation and unity by helping to resolve Khmer issues according to the [former] King's wishes when he was alive," Sam Rainsy wrote in the letters dated Oct. 17 and distributed by his aides.
"During this mourning occasion, I would like Samdech [Hun Sen] to intervene by showing empathy and allowing me to return to pay my respects to the [former] King in Phnom Penh," he said, using the honorific title for the prime minister.
Speaking by telephone from self-exile in France, Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer service that he would return home as soon as possible to pay his respects to Sihanouk depending on Sihamoni’s response.
“In the two letters, I have asked for the King and Samdech Hun Sen’s interventions to allow me to return to Cambodia to pay my last respect to the former King—I would like to see his face one last time,” the opposition leader said.
The Cambodian government has not responded to his letter.
The government had said previously that Sam Rainsy, who served former King Norodom Sihanouk as a minister of finance for the royalist Funcinpec Party in 1993, will be thrown in jail if he returns to Cambodia.
Call for amnesty
Sam Rainsy faces a total of 11 years in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years in absentia in 2010 for publishing a "false map" of the border with neighboring Vietnam, though the punishment was later reduced to seven years.
He was also handed a two-year sentence for "inciting racial discrimination" and uprooting border markings with Vietnam in a 2009 incident.
Last year, he was given another two-year jail term for accusing Cambodian's foreign minister of having been a member of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihanouk’s longtime private secretary and nephew, declined to comment on Sam Rainsy’s request. However, he acknowledged that the exiled politician had been a loyal servant to the former king.
The prince called on the Cambodian government to consider an amnesty for the country’s political prisoners and to allow them to see their former king’s body, flown back to Cambodia on Wednesday from his “second home” in Beijing where he succumbed to a heart attack while undergoing treatment for cancer.
“My personal view during this period of national mourning is that if we truly respect the former King as a promoter of national independence, reconciliation and national unity, all political prisoners should be pardoned,” Prince Thomico said.
Honoring a king
While the ineffectual King Sihamoni has wielded little power since taking over from his father in 2004, many Cambodians still revere the country’s monarchy.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets to pay respects to Sihanouk when his body was flown home Wednesday and escorted through the capital on a golden float.
Hun Sen has declared a week of mourning and ordered that Sihanouk’s body lie in state at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for three months, during which time the public can pay respects before it is cremated according to Buddhist ritual.
Chinese medical experts have been called in to embalm the former king’s body in order to preserve it to enable three months of public viewing beginning Friday.
“Chinese doctors are embalming the body to preserve it for three months. There will be a traditional seven-day funeral,” the prince said.
A national committee has been established to manage the lavish state funeral, he said, with one of its primary responsibilities being to ensure that diplomats, world leaders, and others in mourning will all have a chance to pay their respects.
The prince called on Cambodians to submit their requests to honor the king during the funeral.
Phnom Penh Municipality Police Chief Chhoun Sovann said authorities will seal off roads around the Royal Palace starting Thursday for the duration of the national funeral.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.