Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday called on exiled former opposition party leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country, mocking him as a cowardly politician for reneging on a statement that he would return if an order prohibiting his entry was lifted.
Addressing a commencement ceremony at the National Education Institute in the capital Phnom Penh on Thursday, Hun Sen said he listened to an RFA Khmer Service interview with Sam Rainsy on Wednesday during which he said he would return to Cambodia if the government lifted a government order effectively banning airline companies from flying him home.
Hun Sen then ordered the lifting of the ban imposed on Oct. 12, 2016, and dared his long-time opponent to return to the country to face a criminal conviction observers have called politically motivated and handed down by courts controlled by the prime minister.
“The former ban was enforced to avert any danger—not to take aim at banning his [Sam Rainsy’s] rights,” the premier said. “Yet, Sam Rainsy turned it around and said that we were infringing upon his rights.”
“As a leader, we don’t want to see violence erupt when he sets his foot on [Cambodian] soil,” he told the audience. “It’s clear that an arrest will be made in accordance with the court’s power as ordered by the prosecutor and judicial police. The judgments mandate how long [he] must serve in jail.”
Hun Sen went on to say that in less than 10 hours after the ban was dropped, Sam Rainsy changed his mind about returning.
“That is why in my [Facebook] comments, I raised a question at the end as to what has become an obstacle for [his] return—and that is prison!” he said. “And if prison has become such an obstacle, he won’t return during his entire life.”
Sam Rainsy has been convicted in a number of cases brought before the Cambodian courts by Hun Sen or other ruling Cambodian People’s Party members, and has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
‘Time to get serious’
Sam Rainsy responded to Hun Sen’s comments on Thursday, writing on his Facebook page: “I did say in an email to a journalist on deadline that I would return to the country if the travel ban was lifted. This was shorthand for the restoration of my democratic rights which have been improperly removed.”
“Canceling the travel ban while leaving the rest of the intimidation in place is not a serious advancement,” he continued.
“It’s time to get serious if we want to have a real democratic competition in 2018,” he said referring to national elections next year that could result in the end of strongman Hun Sen’s 32-year reign as prime minister.
“When it comes to cowardice in the fight between two politicians, isn’t the coward the one who uses a country’s tribunal, army and police under his control, to eliminate his opponent?” he asked. “Isn’t the coward the one in the position of a dictator who publicly says he is prepared to physically ‘suppress 100 to 200 persons’—as he actually did when staging a military coup in July 1997—in order to preserve his power?”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the Cambodian government was playing Sam Rainsy like a “yoyo” by pushing him out, then allowing him back by dropping the travel ban, and then issuing news of charges against him to try to push him out again.
“What they are trying to do is they try to show that there was reconciliation after the [commune council] elections,” he told RFA, referring to June 4 local polls in which the opposition made significant inroads, particularly in urban areas.
Taking aim at HRW
Hun Sen also reacted to a statement by Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asian division, who had criticized the commune elections, saying Adams should stop “committing a sin” against the Cambodian government.
Instead, Hun Sen commended the election process in which his CPP won in most areas as having been conducted in a good environment with high voter turnout and no violence.
He said several embassies in Cambodia, including the American embassy, had issued statements hailing the election process, though HRW called it “neither free nor fair.”
“Various embassies including the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh issued statements saying the elections were good,” he said. “Yet, there is … Human Rights Watch saying that the election was not good.”
“Hence, who should we listen to this time?” he said. “For them, nothing is good, in particular so long as the CPP wins. … or until the CPP is dissolved.”
“I want to convey this to Brad Adams: You had better change! Please stop committing a sin [against the government],” he said.
Kem Sokha in Battambang
Meanwhile, Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy’s successor as head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told supporters in northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province on Thursday that people voted for the CNRP in large numbers in the commune elections because of the growing number of cases of social injustice under the CPP government.
Addressing more than 1,000 supporters in a voter appreciation event in Prek Preah Sdech commune in Battambang city where the CNRP won in a landslide, Kem Sokha said young people have turned to the CNRP because in the last few years the CPP’s maltreatment of citizens is now widely read and seen on social media platforms such as Facebook.
CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San responded by saying that Kem Sokha made the comment only to confuse citizens and seek their votes in the national elections in 2018.
But political researcher and analyst Meas Ny said: “Should the government continue to fail to ignore strengthening the social justice system by allowing politicians to interfere in it, the popularity of the ruling party will suffer further.”
Three of ‘Adhoc Five’ ill
In a related development, three of five jailed human rights activists known as the “Adhoc Five”—Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda, and Ny Sokha—have become seriously ill in prison due to lack of access to proper medical treatment, the daughter of one of them said Thursday.
The three officials of the domestic rights group along with their colleague Lim Mony and National Election Committee (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya have been held for 12 months at Prey Sar Prison in the capital Phnom Penh amid a wide-ranging probe into an alleged extramarital affair of Kem Sokha.
San Vathanak Vattey, daughter of Yi Soksan, said the health conditions of the trio have deteriorated because doctors from nongovernmental organizations have not been allowed to provide treatment for them inside the prison as they had in the past.
She said her father was trying various drugs at random to help ease a liver ailment.
“It has been three months already that he’s gone without a physician to take care of him,” she said. “It is really difficult for him.”
The domestic human rights group Licadho used to send physicians to provide treatments for detainees at the 11 correction centers across the country.
But Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s head of investigations, said the provision of medical treatment inside prisons is not the same as before because the Ministry of Interior prohibits access to correction centers.
He said the ministry did not state the reason for the move.
Prison department spokesperson Nuth Savana said every prison has its own doctors, but if the three want to be treated by outside physicians, they must seek court approval.
“They can file a request with the prosecutor, and if the prosecutor approves, we will allow them to go,” he said. “Everything depends on the prosecutor.”
Reported by Zakariya Tin, Thai Tha, Hour Hum, and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.