There are signs that the long political stalemate in Cambodia may be coming to a close as opposition leader Sam Rainsy is considering a return to the country and Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be softening his hard line against his adversaries.
In one indication that the brutal political battle may be entering a new phase, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy told BBC-TV on Monday that he is considering a return to the country whether or not he is granted amnesty from arrest.
“Since Hun Sen gets pressure from the international community because Cambodia relies on international funds, he will agree and request the king [Norodom Sihamoni] to grant me amnesty,” Sam Rainsy said in the interview.
“If there is no political will there won’t be amnesty for me,” he added. “Before, I returned to Cambodia just a few weeks prior the  election without amnesty.”
Cambodia’s local elections are set for 2017 and the national elections are scheduled for 2018.
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad off and on as the Hun Sen-led government has charged him with a number of offenses that observers inside and outside Cambodia see as politically motivated.
In 2013, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon to Sam Rainsy. While the pardon absolved Sam Rainsy of defamation charges allowing him to return to Cambodia without being put in jail.
While he was ineligible for candidacy in the 2013 general election, thousands of his supporters thronged the streets when he returned.
Sam Rainsy’s CNRP gained 55 seats in the National Assembly in that election, but the party and international observers found evidence of fraud and the CNRP boycotted parliament from September 2013 until July 2014.
In November 2015 Sam Rainsy was again removed from parliament by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) when a warrant was issued for his arrest after being convicted of defaming former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong for claiming the CPP politician ran a prison for the bloody Khmer Rouge regime.
Politics or jail
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan told RFA’s Khmer Service that Sam Rainsy was welcome to return home, but his welcome also underscored the danger for the opposition leader.
“Sam Rainsy can come back any time because when he went into self-exile, no one chased him out,” he told RFA’s Khmer service. “He can even return now, but there must be a special conditions. He has to have a special court judgment otherwise he won’t be returning to politics but to jail.”
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Executive Director Koul Panha told RFA that only when all the parties can participate can the election be considered legitimate.
“In a democratic society, party leaders should be tolerant of the expression of each party’s opinions,” he said. “The electoral system in Cambodia is a proportional one, so the participation of all the parties’ leaders is crucial, especially the opposition parties.”
In another indication of a thaw in Cambodia’s frosty political atmosphere, the National Assembly’s powerful Permanent Committee on Wednesday decided against lifting parliamentary immunity for a pair of CNRP lawmakers.
National Assembly spokesperson Leng Peng Long said the committee did not find any actual offenses committed by the two CNRP lawmakers in their actions related to CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha’s alleged affair with a young hairdresser.
“The permanent committee did not decide on that issue [lifting the immunity] because the two [CNRP lawmakers] did not commit any actual offenses,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Phnom Penh court spokesperson Ly Sophanna declined to answer reporters’ questions regarding the committee’s refusal to lift the lawmakers’ immunity. Ministry of Justice spokesperson Kim Santepheap also declined to comment.
'There must be a political solution sooner or later'
In July, the ministry asked the National Assembly to strip the immunity of opposition lawmakers Tok Vanchann and Pin Rattana in the government’s wide-ranging probe into CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s alleged affair.
“The National Assembly’s rejection of the Justice Ministry’s request helps block the court from proceeding with legal procedures against the two opposition lawmakers,” CNRP spokesperson Yem Ponharith told RFA.
Most of the cases against opposition lawmakers have been handled by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
On Sept. 9 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that Kem Sokha was guilty of refusing to appear for questioning in the prostitution case against him, and he was sentenced to five months in prison and a fine of 800,000 riel ($200).
Kem Sokha is accused of procuring a prostitute in relation to his alleged affair with hairdresser Khom Chandaraty. Despite being summonsed twice in May, Sokha refused to appear in court to answer questions about the prostitution allegations.
Tok Vanchann and Pin Rattana are charged with arranging trysts between Kem Sokha and Khom Chandaraty.
While Kem Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP’s headquarters for months after heavily-armed police attempted to arrest him in May for refusing to testify, he told supporters that he planned to register to vote after the Buddhist Pchum Ben holiday concludes, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Leaving CNRP headquarters could make it easier for the authorities to arrest Kem Sokha, but he appears to be ready to take that risk.
“I believe there must be a political solution sooner or later; it is up to our communication skills whether we can find the [solution] and a way out, and I believe there will be,” Kem Sokha said, according to the report.
Reported by Zakariya Tin and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.