On January 27, as the trial of Cambodia’s main opposition leader drew to a close, armed police officers and security officials stood guard outside the closed gates of the Svay Rieng Provincial Court.
The two-year jail sentence awarded to Sam Rainsy, who was sentenced in absentia, was handed down behind closed doors. He was convicted of inciting racial discrimination and damaging public property and also fined $2,000.
Such treatment isn’t unusual for lawmakers in Cambodia. Despite the opposition and media’s best efforts, lawmakers and journalists are frequently hit with lawsuits by the ruling party. It’s probably no surprise then that, according to international NGO Freedom House, Cambodia ranked 132 out of 195 countries in terms of press freedom.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Rainsy’s latest brush with the justice system stemmed from his now infamous trip in October last year to Chantrea district’s Samraong commune in Svay Rieng Province, which borders Vietnam. While visiting the area, Rainsy uprooted six border demarcation posts, because, he said, they had been placed in the rice farm of Meas Srey and not on Vietnamese territory. Srey and another village were for their part both handed one-year jail sentences.
Rainsy’s actions and vocal criticism of the government’s border demarcation process riled lawmakers in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Government officials denied villagers’ accusations of Vietnamese encroachment and voted to strip Rainsy of his political immunity so he could face a criminal investigation over the incident. However, Rainsy fled the country to a home in Paris from which he now runs the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
‘You’ll see new and unexpected developments in the coming months,’ Rainsy told this writer by e-mail. ‘Unprecedented evidence of large-scale border encroachment by Vietnam; exposing of CPP neglect for our country’s interest and their trick to divert public attention to border issues with Thailand instead; international lawsuits involving Cambodia’s top leaders, renewed world attention on Cambodia following different initiatives taken abroad.’
Rainsy says he believes that by remaining free and living abroad, he can do more for Cambodia than if he returned and was forced to protest from a jail cell.
‘I want people to concentrate on issues rather than on my personal situation, which would be the case if I came back to Cambodia now,’ he says.
As part of an increasingly predictable political game, the SRP has petitioned King Norodom Sihamoni to pardon its leader and reinstate his parliamentary immunity (Rainsy was able to return home following a royal pardon after he expressed regret following a previous ‘enforced exile’ in 2006).
But how effective Rainsy’s overseas strategy is likely to be is open to debate. Although Rainsy maintains that his enforced exile proves he is a threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen, now in his 25th year in power, the fact is that he has effectively been ‘removed’ as head of the main opposition party for an unspecified period by the CPP. And, while the Cambodian Constitution does allow the King to pardon and grant amnesty, such requests have in the past been made by Hun Sen himself, who in this case has made abundantly clear he has no intention of doing.