Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Thursday he was ready to go to jail or die for the cause of restoring democracy in Cambodia, vowing to return home on Nov. 9 in the face of threats by “brutal dictator” Hun Sen.
In a Facebook video statement, Sam Rainsy, the acting president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), appealed to the world to “please have Cambodia in your thoughts on that day” when he faces down the strongman who has ruled the Southeast Asian country since 1985.
“After several years in exile I am returning to Cambodia on November 9. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is known as a brutal dictator, has vowed to arrest me and ordered the armed forces to destroy what he calls the ‘rodents’ that I will be leading peacefully back to our country,” he said, speaking in English from Paris.
“For those of you who don’t know me, this may be the first time and the last time that you see me alive as a free man. For those who know me this may just be the last time you will see me alive as a free man,” said Sam Rainsy, who fled Cambodia four years ago under threat of arrest, in the three-minute video.
He said he hoped his return on Nov. 9, Cambodia’s Independence Day, would be a show of “people power” similar to the protests in the Philippines that toppled long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
“I am prepared to sacrifice my freedom, and even my life, to give democracy a chance to help ensure freedom for my unfortunate people,” said Sam Rainsy.
Earlier, in comments to RFA’s Khmer Service, the 70-year-old former Cambodian finance minister, said “everything is ready and prepared” for his return. But he avoided giving specific details about his route or saying how he would get around neighboring Thailand’s blacklist of CNRP officials.
“I think if we talk in details at this time, it would cause lots of difficulties in carrying out our planning. So, please wait,” he told RFA.
“Three days -- November 6 -- before my actual arrival date in Cambodia on November 9, I will provide a great detail of my planned trip, so that Cambodians – both in Thailand and Cambodia, can be fully informed on the time and places for meetings and what routes they should take, etc.,” he said.
Last weekend, a Thai security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, told RFA that Cambodia had forwarded warrants to the Thai government for Sam Rainsy, CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua, and six other party officials, with orders to arrest them if they arrive in Thailand for transit into Cambodia.
“But Thai authorities don’t want to get involved in [Cambodia’s] internal matter,” the official said, noting that authorities chose instead to blacklist Mu Sochua from entry into the country last week to assist in preparations for Sam Rainsy’s return.
Mu Sochua was turned back in Bangkok last week after she flew into the Thai capital.
“I cannot say anything at this time,” he said when asked by RFA about the Thai blacklist.
“This is the interpretation and prediction of some people. Let them interpret and predict the way they wanted, but there is no official statement and no official confirmation,” he said.
Asked about reports that CNRP officials were in talks with Thailand, Sam Rainsy said “I cannot confirm nor deny. We cannot talk much now before what’s going to happen.”
Cambodia shares land borders with communist one-party states Vietnam and Laos, as well as with Thailand, a former democracy still effectively under authoritarian military rule after a tightly controlled election in March, 2019. It remains unclear what Bangkok will do with Sam Rainsy and what he claims will be thousands of supporters.
“I will arrive in Asia a few days before my actual return date to Cambodia. I am now actively working with friendly governments around the globe,” he told RFA.
A number of foreign officials who promised to return to Cambodia with him remain committed to travel with CNRP leadership back to Cambodia, he said.
“We will talk in great detail about our plan to return to Cambodia on November 6.”
Cambodia plunged into political crisis after the arrest of CNRP president Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the CNRP two months later for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.