The acting president of Cambodia’s opposition party, Sam Rainsy, on Monday promised members of the armed forces “decent salaries and benefits” if they offer him protection when he returns home from exile later this week to lead a “restoration of democracy” in the country, amid threats of arrest.
“In order to express gratitude to all compatriots in the armed forces, I guarantee you a decent salary for your struggle alongside, and your protection of, the Cambodian people in their fight for democracy,” the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said in a video shot at his home in Paris, France and posted to his Facebook page.
“We will not only keep your current positions and ranks, but we will also raise your value in society. We will have to make sure you have a decent salary and benefits so that you can live with dignity.”
Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says were politically motivated and, since then, authorities arrested CNRP president Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017, while the Supreme Court dissolved the party two months later over an alleged plot to topple the government.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Prime Minister 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.
Sam Rainsy has vowed to return on Nov. 9 to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him, but the prime minister and other government leaders have vowed to arrest him as soon as he enters the country.
The acting CNRP chief’s latest appeal comes amid reports that authorities in Cambodia’s border provinces have launched anti-protest training initiatives for members of the security forces, and deployed extra troops with a “fully modern arsenal” to those areas to “crack down on demonstrations” and protect the country from what they have termed a planned coup.
Responding to Sam Rainsy’s video on Monday, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CNRP leader is “dreaming,” because no member of the armed forces would take orders from him over their own commander.
“Ask the soldiers if they will listen to him,” he said, adding that the government “has paid attention to the livelihoods of the soldiers” by raising their salaries annually and daring Sam Rainsy to enter the country right away.
“If he is confident in his appeal, let him just come in any time on any day—don’t wait until Nov. 9—and then he will see how many soldiers welcome him.”
In September, the CNRP announced that it had earmarked a budget to support members of the armed forces who defect from Hun Sen’s government and offer protection to Sam Rainsy on his return, saying the money would be used to “support their livelihoods,” but not to promote violence or purchase weapons.
On Monday, political analyst Kim Sok told RFA that whether members of the armed forces will follow Sam Rainsy depends on “to what extent people are willing to sacrifice.”
Rather than set up a potential clash between supporters and the authorities, Kim Sok said that the best solution is for the ruling and opposition parties to engage in dialogue, using Cambodia’s constitution and the principles of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord—which ended civil war in Cambodia and established democratic elections in the country—as guidelines.
Meanwhile, authorities in Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province, along the border with Thailand, on Monday distributed posters with the names and photos of 21 CNRP activists and former elected officials they said are wanted for arrest, calling for help from the public in nabbing the “group of rebel traitors.”
Ysa Osman, a former elected CNRP official, told RFA he was “very surprised” by his inclusion on the list, saying he had publicly announced his resignation from politics in April and had never received an arrest warrant.
“This means that I will not take part in activities with any political party anymore,” he said, adding that his decision had been based on health, family, and professional issues.
When asked about Ysa Osman and others on the poster, Commissioner General of the National Police Neth Savoeun told RFA that “whoever’s name appears on an arrest warrant will be arrested,” without providing details.
Exiled CNRP official Khleang Bunlay called the wanted poster “just one more way to intimidate CNRP leaders, and to scare them from returning to Cambodia on Nov. 9.”
“If we continue to stand back and observe [the government’s] injustice, our people and our children will continue to suffer, so those who love democracy and freedom must stand up to fight,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what may happen to me—I will take part regardless of the risks.”
Police have made multiple arrests of Sam Rainsy’s supporters in recent weeks, bringing to at least 57 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and 190 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to their mistreatment.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.