Cambodia’s exiled acting opposition chief Sam Rainsy has agreed to return to the country in September, following a decision by fellow party executives to go home to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country, while the government said it has arrest warrants ready for him.
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, and ceded control of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to then-vice president Kem Sokha as part of a bid to prevent the government from shutting down the opposition party.
In September 2017, Kem Sokha was arrested over an alleged plot to topple the government, and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later, leaving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with no viable challenger in a general election last July that saw the ruling party win all 125 parliamentary seats up for voting.
Over the weekend, senior CNRP officials met in the U.S. state of Minnesota and decided that the party members who are in exile should head home in order to “participate in a nonviolent political campaign to demand Kem Sokha’s freedom, restore democracy and rehabilitate the CNRP,” the party said in statement.
“2019 is the year that we need to return. There are only six more months left,” CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhai Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service after the weekend gathering. He said that the exact schedule will be discussed in another meeting.
Asked by RFA about his plan to return, Sam Rainsy he agreed with the party’s policy on returning.
“I agreed with the party’s permanent committee decision. They have a group who planned this strategy, I have nothing to add,” he said.
Arrest warrants ready
Sam Rainsy declined to elaborate on arrival plans, saying it is being discussed by the party as a whole, and has not explained what became of plans to return early this year.
Early this year he had pledged to return to Cambodia by March to lead the party inside the country and take advantage of growing global pressure on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA that the government will arrest Sam Rainsy when he returns.
“We have warrants for his arrest. There is no royal pardon yet,” he said. “The authorities are waiting for his face. Those who committed crimes will be sent to jail.”
Sam Rainsy riled Hun Sen in April with Facebook posts saying that Cambodians should take to the streets to oust him, just as Algerians did to end the regime of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stepped down after ruling the North African country for 20 years.
Hun Sen has ramped up the pressure on the CNRP with campaigns of harassment of party members across the country.
In March six CNRP members fled Cambodia ahead of likely arrest and applied for political asylum outside the country. The six were charged with incitement after making public statements in December and January in support of plans by Sam Rainsy to return home from exile in Paris.
No actions to satisfy EU
Scores of CNRP supporters have been detained for questioning regarding their show of support for the return of Sam Rainsy to Cambodia and their social media comments supporting the party and its leaders.
The CNRP announcement came after the European Union wrapped up a five-day fact-finding mission to determine whether Cambodia should continue to benefit from a tax-free EU trade scheme, based on the state of human rights and democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
In February, the EU announced it would launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, prompted by a the Supreme Court’s ban of the CNRP.
Koul Panha, director of the advocacy group Comfrel, told RFA that so far the government has ignored the EU’s calls to restore democracy in Cambodia.
“The EU wants the government to release Kem Sokha from house arrest and drop all charges,” he said.
Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights Director Moeun Tola told RFA that he met with the EU fact-finding mission last week and was told that that was the last trip before making decision on EBA trade rights.
He said the EU wants to see progress in four areas: free space for NGOs, free media, labor union freedom and land rights. Tola said that so far he has not observed any improvement in the four areas.
“There are many criminal cases that are pending at the court against union leaders,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.