Cambodia’s banned opposition party has earmarked a budget to support members of the armed forces who defect from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime and offer protection to its acting president Sam Rainsy when he returns to the country from self-imposed exile in November, a party official said Monday.
The budget, which remains undisclosed, was approved at the end of a Sept. 14-15 meeting of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) permanent committee in Lowell, Massachusetts, along with strategies to arrange travel by Sam Rainsy and other party brass to Asia on Nov. 5, and appeal to Cambodian migrant workers to accompany them back home four days later, the CNRP said in a statement.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, CNRP Vice President Eng Chhay Eang defended the decision to fund defectors from Cambodia’s armed forces, saying the money would be used to “support their livelihoods,” but not to promote violence or purchase weapons.
“It’s purely for supporting their livelihoods once they defect [from the government],” he said.
“We didn’t allocate any of the budget for purchasing weapons. That is not according to our principles. We will remain strictly in compliance with the principles of nonviolence when we return to Cambodia.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia’s government has sought to downplay the impending return of Sam Rainsy, who the CNRP announced last month will return to Cambodia from exile, along with several other high-ranking party officials, on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison them.
Sam Rainsy recently vowed to lead two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries, home when he returns to lead what he says will be a restoration of democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Eng Chhay Eang said that Hun Sen’s government plans to deploy the military to “suppress” Sam Rainsy’s supporters who have pledged to accompany him home.
“Despite this, a large number of members of the armed forces have been contacting us, saying they are unwilling to do so,” he said.
“We are therefore asking them to protect the people and stand by their side. If the Hun Sen regime no longer pays them their wages [because of this], we will help support them during their transition period, and once we attain real change, we will compensate them with back pay.”
Support for return
Neither Eng Chhay Eang or Mu Sochua, another CNRP Vice President, would provide details of the budget plan when asked by RFA, but said that the proposed funds had been donated by overseas party supporters “who love justice and democracy.”
“Sam Rainsy’s repatriation will be nonviolent, peaceful, and will focus on national reconciliation and unity,” Mu Sochua added.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan responded to the CNRP’s planned budget as a “form of sabotage,” and questioned how Sam Rainsy would make good on the offer.
“Sam Rainsy can’t even collect enough money to return to the country and he is continuously begging for money from overseas Cambodians—how does he have enough money to buy Cambodia’s armed forces,” he said.
“Cambodian troops have enough experience liberating Cambodians from war and maintaining peace, which is what the public wants. This plan is nothing to be surprised about—it’s just a form of sabotage.”
The CNRP’s permanent committee meeting came as a CNRP activist in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province told RFA that he had gathered more than 100 supporters from his province in preparation of Sam Rainsy’s return, saying that most are former police officers and soldiers who are will to “devote everything they have to protecting” the CNRP leader.
“We will join our hands together [to form a human chain to protect Sam Rainsy],” he said, adding that while “a single chopstick can be broken, they cannot break multiple pairs of chopsticks.”
“I’m afraid that if we let the current regime continue treating us the way they have been, we may return to the era of the Khmer Rouge,” the activist added, referring to the regime whose leadership oversaw the killing of nearly two million people during its 1975-79 reign of terror in Cambodia.
Mao Vibol, the CNRP’s top official in Svay Rieng, said supporters will do whatever it takes to protect Sam Rainsy, based on their love for Cambodia and democracy.
“Some dare sacrifice their lives for change and will not hesitate,” he said.
“As long as [Sam Rainsy returns], they will join him. They say, ‘no chance is better than this [coming] chance.’”
While preparations for Sam Rainsy’s return continue, authorities in Kandal province on Saturday arrested Ly Meng Kheang, a member of CNRP executive committee for Saang district; Ly Lin, the CNRP’s elected chief of Samraong Thom commune, in Kien Svay district; and Chhun Thaiyuth, the CNRP’s elected vice-chief for Prek Sdey commune, in Koh Thom district.
The three are being held in Kandal Provincial Prison after the provincial court on Sunday ordered them detained amid an investigation.
While Kandal Provincial Court spokesperson So Sarin and Kandal Provincial Police Commissioner Eav Chamreun refused to comment on the arrests when contacted by RFA, National Police General Commissariat spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said they were conducted “properly, based on warrants and evidence,” although he did not know the charges involved.
The arrests bring to six the total number of CNRP activists held by authorities over the weekend—after police on Friday detained Yat Phyrum in Banteay Meanchey province, Tum Bunthorn in Siem Reap province, and You Chanthany in Phnom Penh—and to 27 the total number of CNRP activists taken into custody since the beginning of 2019.
A prosecutor has ordered the three arrested on Friday placed in temporary detention awaiting trial on charges of treason.
Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, told RFA that authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since Sam Rainsy announced his plans to return to Cambodia and that, in addition to the 27 arrested since the beginning of the year, at least 156 CNRP activists have faced interrogation over the same period.
“The victims are our poor people, who are subject to threats, intimidation and subsequent arrests,” he said.
“We remain concerned, as recently the [United Nations human rights agency] in Cambodia as well as the U.N. Human Rights Council have called on the government to end persecution of the opposition party and its local activists.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.