Cambodia’s government has effectively refused exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s requests to return home to pay his last respects to the country’s former king Norodom Sihanouk, drawing protests from the dissident’s supporters at home.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) spokesman Yim Sovann said Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration had returned the opposition leader’s three letters of request, without providing any explanation.
He interpreted the return of the letters to SRP mean that the government had rejected Sam Rainsy’s request to return to pay respects to King Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack last week.
“The government didn’t even consider the letters but simply forwarded them on to us. This is saddening,” Yim Sovann said.
“Sam Rainsy has softened his stance to support the former King’s ideas for national unity and independence,” he said.
Sam Rainsy is president of the National Rescue Party (NRP)—a unification of the SRP and Human Rights Party (HRP) aimed at challenging the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in elections next year.
He could be imprisoned for up to 11 years on his return following convictions for various offenses he has said were part of a campaign of political persecution.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government had examined the requests, but could not respond to them because to do so would be “a violation of the rule of law.”
Phay Siphan accused Sam Rainsy of trying to “exploit” King Sihanouk’s funeral for his political advantage because the opposition leader had also sent copies of his letters to the media.
“There is no reason to respond to those letters,” he said.
“I simply consider them to be advertisements in the newspaper.”
Phay Siphan said that Sam Rainsy should respect the court’s decisions.
The government had said previously that Sam Rainsy, who served former King Norodom Sihanouk as a minister of finance for the royalist Funcinpec Party in 1993, will be thrown in jail if he returns to Cambodia.
Call for amnesty
Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 10 years in absentia in 2010 for publishing a "false map" of the border with neighboring Vietnam, though the punishment was later reduced to seven years.
He was also handed a two-year sentence for "inciting racial discrimination" and uprooting border markings with Vietnam in a 2009 incident.
Last year, he was given another two-year jail term for accusing Cambodian's foreign minister of having been a member of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihanouk’s longtime private secretary and nephew, called on Hun Sen to consider an amnesty for the country’s political prisoners and to allow them to see their former king’s body, flown back to Cambodia last week from his “second home” in Beijing where he succumbed to a heart attack while undergoing treatment for cancer.
He said that a pardon of the country’s political prisoners would do well to honor the former King’s aim to unite all Cambodians.
“Samdech Hun Sen has promised to protect the monarchy,” Prince Thomico said, using the prime minister’s honorific title.
“So in this situation, if we regard the former King as the father of national reconciliation, we should release all political prisoners,” he said.
Sam Rainsy resigned from the SRP earlier this month to head the NRP.
Other key officials from both the SRP and the HRP who are also members of the National Assembly are holding back, as they could be disqualified from remaining in parliament if they follow suit.
Sam Rainsy has vowed to return to Cambodia by the end of the year to lead the NRP in its campaign to oust Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985.
Reported by Sok Serey and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.