Acting president of Cambodia’s banned opposition party Sam Rainsy traveled to Washington on Wednesday to request “protections” from the U.S. government ahead of his planned return from self-imposed exile, amid threats of arrest by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy was expected to meet with officials from the Department of Defense and State Department, as well as lawmakers from the U.S. Senate, on Wednesday to enlist their help as he prepares to reenter Cambodia along with several other high-ranking officials from his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Nov. 9, to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France.
“We would like the U.S. to provide protections for Sam Rainsy,” Pon Saory, the General Secretary of the CNRP Overseas (CNRP-O) told RFA’s Khmer Service, without providing details of the request, other than that the party will also call on the Senate to “establish a committee to monitor” the acting opposition chief’s return.
“What we are doing is for the sake of democracy, human rights and positive change in Cambodia,” he said.
The visit to Washington is part of a 10-day tour by Sam Rainsy of the U.S. and Canada, where he will work to gather support ahead of leading what the CNRP has said will be a restoration of democracy in increasingly autocratic 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 his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western governments following the ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended last month to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
On Wednesday, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the CNRP’s request for U.S. protection as “propaganda.”
“The U.S. has no influence over Cambodia, and can’t order us to do anything,” he said, suggesting Sam Rainsy will face legal action on his return.
“This is about implementation of the law, and not about politics.”
Analyst Kim Sok expressed doubt that the U.S. would intervene in Cambodia’s politics, barring a “major incident.”
“[The CNRP] want[s] to make sure that the U.S. is paying attention to the political crisis in Cambodia, and Sam Rainsy will definitely try to enlist U.S. officials to accompany him [back home],” he said.
“[If he succeeds], the U.S. is more likely to monitor the situation and seek a political resolution.”
Also on Wednesday, CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhai Eang told RFA that Sam Rainsy “will not cross into Cambodia through Laos or Vietnam,” although he refused to provide any details about the acting party president’s plans.
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.
However, Eng Chhai Eang suggested that “many other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members” will ignore Hun Sen’s appeals.
His comments came a day after the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement in which Kasit Piromya, an APHR board member and former Thailand Member of Parliament, called on Cambodia’s neighbors to “support all efforts towards political dialogue” in the country and urged them not to “kneel to the demands of an increasingly dangerous autocrat.”
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said Sam Rainsy had “lied to the people” about returning to Cambodia and warned that authorities are waiting to arrest him if he does.
“Regardless of how he plans to enter Cambodia, authorities will immediately apprehend him once he steps foot inside the country, as they’ve already been issued warrants for his arrest.”
Warrants and convictions
Cambodia’s government has sought to downplay the impending return of Sam Rainsy and threatened to arrest him and the two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries that he has vowed will accompany him home.
The CPP is also widely seen as directing Cambodia’s courts to bolster its case for sending Sam Rainsy to jail upon his arrival.
On Tuesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a new warrant for the acting opposition chief’s arrest on charges of “insulting the King” after he gave an interview to RFA in which he called King Norodom Sihamoni a “puppet” of Hun Sen.
The new order to take Sam Rainsy into custody comes after the court in March made public its decision to issue arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy and seven other top CNRP officials living abroad on charges of “treason and incitement to commit felonies.”
In May, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy in-absentia to a total of eight years in prison for “demoralizing the armed forces” and “insulting the King” after he issued statements urging the military to refrain from arresting him upon his return to Cambodia and calling an election letter written by Sihamoni “fake or written under duress.”
The convictions were added to a list of those carrying sentences the opposition chief has yet to serve, including a five-year jail term for forging documents about the border shared by Cambodia and Vietnam in 2016, and a 20-month jail term for defamation after he accused Hun Sen of being responsible for the murder of political analyst Kem Ley that same year.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.