The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Friday announced that acting President Sam Rainsy and several other high-ranking party officials will return to Cambodia from exile in early November, despite threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to imprison them.
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, but has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile. In early June, he announced that he had agreed to return to the country by September, following a decision by fellow party executives to go home to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
But over the weekend he walked back plans to return next month, and suggested instead that he would travel to Cambodia sometime before the end of the year, saying his announcement was intended to “mislead” Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
On Friday, the CNRP said in a statement that Sam Rainsy and other officials will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, adding that the decision had been approved by the party’s standing committee during a meeting over which the acting president had presided.
Eng Chhai Eang, a deputy president of the CNRP, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the planned return in November will give the party ample time to prepare, and that the selected date carries significance in that it “represents the freedom for Cambodians to decide our future fate for peace and prosperity.”
“It’s just about the timing, as Cambodians everywhere are ready to step up their efforts in our fight for a positive change that benefits the whole population,” he said.
“We also believe that our return to Cambodia during this time will help mend the political crisis, which may impact the EU’s decision on whether to withdraw trade preferences for Cambodia.”
Hun Sen crackdown
Authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha in September 2017, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that 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 election, 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 this week to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
The European Commission plans to present Cambodia with a report on its findings from the monitoring period in November, after which it will make a final decision in February 2020 on whether or not EBA status will be withdrawn fully or in part. Suspension would come into effect by August 2020.
Earlier this week, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC)—which represents the owners of Cambodian garment factories—warned that withdrawing EBA status would negatively impact nearly four million Cambodian workers and their families.
The CNRP’s announcement of Sam Rainsy’s planned return came after top-ranking officials with Cambodia’s security forces said they were arranging the deployment of authorities to all border checkpoints in anticipation of the acting party president and other senior opposition leaders in exile, with orders to arrest them and escort them to jail.
CNRP supporters, and activists across Cambodia and overseas, are backing Sam Rainsy’s return, and many have said they will escort his entry into the country, despite threats from the government that anyone who assists him will also face arrest.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.