U.S. President Barack Obama must use his influence to end human rights abuses and ensure free and fair elections in Cambodia if he attends the East Asia Summit meeting to be hosted by the country this month, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Friday.
Sam Rainsy said that if Obama attends the Nov. 18-20 meeting in the capital Phnom Penh, his visit “must help Cambodia,” which holds the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which also includes Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“If he goes to Cambodia, he must help Cambodia, to protect human rights and [to hold] a free and fair election,” Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer service in an interview.
“The people of Cambodia and I welcome Mr. Barack Obama, but we request that the President—if he goes to Cambodia—must use his influence to save the country.”
Sam Rainsy, 63, is president of the National Rescue Party (NRP)—a united opposition coalition – aimed at challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in elections next year.
The opposition leader, currently living in self-imposed exile in Paris, could be imprisoned for up to 11 years on his return to Cambodia following convictions for various offenses he has said were part of a campaign of political persecution.
Sam Rainsy said that Phnom Penh has already been under “intense pressure” from Washington ahead of Obama’s expected visit, which he hopes will bring about positive change in the country.
“The U.S. President is [expected] to have a historic visit in Cambodia,” he said.
“Through experience, when we have top leaders from the U.S. in Cambodia, we get solutions.”
Sam Rainsy noted that ahead of a 2005 visit by senior U.S. State Department officials, the Cambodian government released independent Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando, then-president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights Kem Sokha, and Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association Rong Chhun from prison.
Mam Sonando has been thrown back in prison after being recently convicted of masterminding a revolt of villagers over a land dispute. He has rejected the charges.
Sam Rainsy’s call to Obama follows a commentary published this week in The New York Times, in which the opposition leader urged the U.S. President not to attend the ASEAN summit to avoid internationally legitimizing the rule of Hun Sen— the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia.
Rights groups have accused Hun Sen of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents, which Sam Rainsy said the prime minister had engaged in because “he knows that it’s an easier and safer way to win elections than allowing democratic debate.”
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia since 1985, and in 2009 said he would continue to stand as a candidate until 2023.
Kurt Campbell, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Thursday that Washington is concerned about steps Cambodia has taken against opposition groups, civic organizations, and individuals.
Vow to return
Sam Rainsy has vowed to return to Cambodia by the end of the year to help lead the opposition in an effort to unseat the prime minister, but the government says he will be thrown in jail if he returns.
Just last week, Cambodia’s government effectively refused Sam Rainsy’s requests to return home to pay his last respects to the country’s former king Norodom Sihanouk, drawing protests from the dissident’s supporters at home.
Hun Sen’s administration had returned the opposition leader’s three letters of request, without providing any explanation, which members of his former party interpreted as a rejection of his request to honor the king, who died of a heart attack in October.
But Sam Rainsy on Friday downplayed the government’s lack of response, saying “positive signs” remain that he will be able to return to Cambodia.
“If there is a refusal, there must be a way out. This will not be for long,” he said.
The opposition leader said he would request that the government allow him to visit Cambodia for even a single day to “pay respects to the former king before his cremation.”
“This is not about politics.”
Sam Rainsy served former king Norodom Sihanouk as a minister of finance for the royalist Funcinpec Party in 1993.
But the head of the NRP said that he would continue to seek a resolution to the political tension in Cambodia for the sake of national reconciliation.
“I will explore all peaceful means of returning to Cambodia [for the former king] because my return is for religious and humanitarian reasons,” he said.
“I want to return because all Khmer must show respect for the soul of the former king.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.