Authorities in Thailand have refused entry to opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) vice president Mu Sochua citing “security concerns,” she said Tuesday, after she flew to Bangkok to assist in preparations for the return of acting party president Sam Rainsy to Cambodia next month.
Mu Sochua left Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur just after 3:00 p.m. on Sunday and arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok around 4:30 p.m., but was prevented from entering Thailand by immigration police who told her that the Thai government believes her presence in the country could “lead to social turmoil or affect security.”
The CNRP vice president was forced to return to Kuala Lumpur around 8 p.m. the same day, she told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that “negotiations are underway” with officials to allow for Sam Rainsy and other party leaders to enter Thailand and cross the border into Cambodia on Nov. 9 to lead what they have termed a “restoration of democracy” in the face of a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mu Sochua expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached with Thailand’s government, which she said is increasingly democratic in nature, following the country’s March general election—the first since a military coup installed General Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister.
“The current Royal Government of Thailand is no longer fully controlled by the military—it’s a government that was formed through multiparty elections in which there are liberals and democrats who appreciate the fight for democracy,” she said.
Mu Sochua also remained confident that the CNRP and its supporters will be able to return to Cambodia “no matter what.”
“We are so committed to creating a [political] dialogue at home that we will find a solution,” she said.
“We have to continue the fight for our people’s rights, freedom and democracy. We have to continue the fight for a positive change. If we cannot enter Cambodia by land, we will go by air or water.”
A report by The Phnom Penh Post quoted Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Ket Sophann as saying that Thai immigration police had “banned” Mu Sochua from entering the country “because she is placed in a blacklist on Cambodia police’s requests,” adding that they had stamped the words “banned from entry” on her passport.
Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders have been urging supporters—particularly those among the migrant laborer community in Thailand—and members of the armed forces to join them on their return, but Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to arrest the opposition leaders as soon as they set foot inside the country.
Cambodia’s courts have labeled the return part of a “coup” and in recent weeks police have arrested dozens of supporters and activists of the CNRP, which was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, two months after authorities arrested the party’s president Kem Sokha on charges of treason.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Hun Sen has been counteracting efforts by Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders to gather the support of the international community by seeking the cooperation of neighboring countries to ensure that their return will be prevented, and Laos has reportedly agreed to take “strict measures” against any opposition officials who attempt to enter Cambodia through its territory.
Mao Vibol, the head of the CNRP in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province, who fled to Thailand following the party’s dissolution, told RFA on Tuesday that he as many as 20 fellow party activists have been meeting with Cambodian migrant workers in Bangkok as part of a bid to organize additional support for Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia.
“We are no longer intimidated by Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime,” he said, adding that Cambodia’s governance is “skidding off course.”
“Nov. 9 will be the most significant day of our history, when we lovers of democracy unite and stand up against the oppressors. It is a now-or-never opportunity to save our country.”
As the CNRP prepares in Thailand and elsewhere, authorities in Cambodia have made multiple arrests of Sam Rainsy’s supporters in recent weeks, bringing to at least 53 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and nearly 186 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period.
On Tuesday, police arrested a member of the CNRP’s executive committee in Battambang province’s Sampov Loun district named Sim Lao, as well as Sin Sithath, the former elected chief of Speu commune, in Kampong Cham province’s Chamkar Leur district—both on charges of “plotting a coup” after they expressed support for Sam Rainsy’s return.
Am Sam Ath, an official with Cambodian rights group Licadho, called their arrests examples of “political intimidation” against the CNRP.
Hun Sen’s rollbacks on democracy have drawn condemnation from Western governments and on Monday, lawmakers in Washington held a hearing of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus (CCC) during which they warned the prime minister to change course or expect a tough response from the U.S.
Speaking at the hearing to commemorate the Oct. 23 signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia and led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections, Representative Ted Yoho of Florida said that if Hun Sen chooses bloodshed over reconciliation on Nov. 9, he will invite “massive sanctions” from Washington.
“You’re going to see trade pretty much stop abruptly and it will affect Hun Sen and the people around him that keep him in power,” said Yoho, who introduced legislation to apply sanctions on Cambodian officials deemed responsible for undermining democracy in the country that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July.
“People like that are always looking internally; they are selfish; they are looking at [how] does this benefit me? A true leader looks at their population, and thinks about what is best for the people … so Hun Sen has a decision to make.”
Yoho said he had met with Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders, who he said face being banned from entry, immediate arrest, or even death when they attempt to return to Cambodia next month.
“These people are laying their lives on the line to uphold the 1991 Paris Peace Treaty that [will define what] democracy will be in Cambodia,” he said.
“The people of Cambodia deserve freedom and liberty and a democratic form of government.”
Congressman Alan Lowenthal, a co-chair of the CCC, told RFA that he and other lawmakers want Hun Sen to know that “the United State government is watching, and we want Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia and … not be arrested.”
“We are not interested in taking sides [with one] party or who should be in power. What we are asking is for Cambodia to return to democracy to allow a free and fair election.”
Also present for Monday’s hearing was Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy director-general of public affairs and Kem Sokha’s daughter, who called for “national reconciliation” in Cambodia according to the principles of democracy set forth in the Paris Peace Accords.
Cambodia’s government spokesperson Phay Siphan did not respond to calls from RFA on Tuesday seeking comment on the threat of sanctions by U.S. lawmakers.
If enacted into law, the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019 would block the assets of government, military, or security officials responsible for the crackdown in recent years on political opposition groups, NGOs, and independent media.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.