Cambodian Showdown Looms after Sam Rainsy Pardon
Image Credit: quartje via Flickr

Cambodian Showdown Looms after Sam Rainsy Pardon


Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been pardoned of crimes he insists were politically motivated and is scheduled to return home from self-imposed exile on Friday where he will spearhead his party’s election bid, setting the stage for a showdown with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the region’s longest serving elected leader.

The pardon was granted by Hun Sen and signed off by King Norodom Sihamoni after intense lobbying by the United States amid demands from human rights groups that Washington cut aid to Cambodia unless the July 28 elections are deemed free and fair.

U.S. aid on its own is small. However, Washington’s ability to influence other donors – Europe, Australia, Britain and Japan – must have been in Hun Sen’s calculations. Combined they contribute about US$1.0 billion, perhaps a fifth of Cambodia’s annual budget.

Hun Sen was initially opposed to the pardon despite some support from within his own ranks. He resisted overtures from U.S. President Barack Obama to have the charges against Rainsy dropped during a visit last November and maintained the issue was a matter for the courts.

However, he granted the pardon just a few hours after his father Hun Neang died, leading to speculation the Prime Minister had changed his mind as a goodwill gesture in difficult times.

Rainsy, whose departure was being hampered by a need to renew his passport, was conciliatory. He said he was happy to be returning to Cambodia and that his pardon was a sign that “we are moving in the right direction: the direction of national reconciliation, of national unity without which Cambodia cannot achieve democracy and cannot achieve true development.”

His arrival in Phnom Penh will add another edge to an election campaign already dominated by Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The CPP currently holds 90 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly and is widely expected to be returned, albeit with a reduced majority.

Potential losses have spooked the CPP and Rainsy’s presence could further that.

As leader of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), Rainsy fled Cambodia for exile in France in late 2009, shortly before he was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in prison on charges of accusing the Foreign Minister Hor Namhong of being a member of the Khmer Rouge, removing border poles and publishing a false map of the border with Vietnam.

The border stunt outraged authorities in Vietnam and Cambodia alike but was applauded by Rainsy supporters and ordinary Cambodians who fear Vietnamese encroachment.

Since then the SRP has merged with the Human Rights Party to forge the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP); they hold a combined 29 seats and their campaign has been raucous, with crowds of up to 5,000 not uncommon in Phnom Penh and in provincial towns across the country.

As a politician Sam Rainsy is something of an anomaly. In the United States he enjoys the sympathy of the hard right, including the International Republican Institute (IRI) – not normally a port of call for activists monitoring human rights violations.

Among his staunchest supporters is the Republican Dana Rohrabacher, who said in recent Congressional hearings that Hun Sen had committed crimes and had held power for too long.

“Hun Sen is a corrupt, vicious human being, who has held that country in his grip for decades,” he said. “It’s time for Hun Sen to go.”

Rohrabacher’s comments were ill-timed and ill-conceived. Violence had been a hallmark of earlier Cambodian elections that were still deemed free and fair by independent election monitors. More recent polls have been raucous and reports of bullying and intimidation not uncommon, but they were also relatively calm and also declared free and fair. Rohrabacher should remember that Rainsy contested those elections — and lost.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.

Khmer Rouge Survivor
July 18, 2013 at 02:49

Dear Mr. US Congressional Representatives,

It is very laughable when I hear most of you talked about Human right! 

Where were you when US (B52) bomb Cambodia during the campaign called “Operation Menu”?

 Do you know what exactly the US did to the people of Cambodian? It was horrified and disgust.   

When people hear of genocide and Cambodia, they tend to think of the Khmer Rouge, and the “Killing Fields”.  Mr. Congressional Representatives, all those happened because of the US actions inside Cambodian borders.

The supported from US to Lon Nol government created the Civil War and Because of the devastating carpet bombing from US leave young people with no choice but joined the Khmer Rouge army.

We really needed you during that time.  We were waiting for the UN to rescues 2 Million life’s in Cambodia.   Where was the Human right group?  Where were you Mr. UN?  Where was the world compassion?  Where were all the Cambodians that live in the western country?  How come nobody care to demonstrate for rescues 2 million Cambodians in 1975-1979?  Where was Sam Rainsy?  Why just now? Do you wants to return to Cambodia because of you care about Cambodians and Cambodia land or because of the Parliamentary Seat or Prime Minister Seat?  Don’t get me wrong, I am not pro -Hun Sen nor Sam Rainsy.

July 16, 2013 at 23:01

Much of the AID is valid guilt money after having having bombed them during the Vietnam war, causing the Khmer Rouge to come to power and subsequently supporting the Khmer Rouge in excile in Thailand. In reality you should be criticing the article which is complete garbage reporting, and poor pre-processed garbage from right wing media organization operating in Southeast Asia such as VOA and RFA.

You should be aware that just like Laos much of the AID money is for unexploded ordnance left over from the bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War, the rest like much of US AID is aimed at forcing the state open to neoliberal reforms e.g the US government profits from "all that AID."

July 15, 2013 at 12:56

you folks think i write comments for my own pleasure?  you should read your own policy before deleting text.

mr. doorknob
July 15, 2013 at 12:21

hey, this is fun.  i get to comment in favor of a republican's comments.  the author 'should remember' that ms. rohrbacher's statement was essentially correct and perhaps those other than 'diplomats' would not have felt compelled to mitigate these remarks with irrelevant 'filler' about 'fairness' and 'cambodian elections'.  clearly an oxymoron if ever there were one.  only fools and/or those who have never been to camboland recognize the forces at work.  surely mr. rainsy is a brave man.  and surely japan, which has been an actual benefactor of cambodia for many decades, surely is not going to jump at the distant american barking dog.  hun sen could care less about the West at this point except in terms of tourism and fulfilling china's requirements.  cambodia is developing as chou en lai predicted.

July 14, 2013 at 21:27

This article just makes me sick! I cant even read past paragraph three! Washington giving aid in monies, huge amounts to other countries when people in our country are jobless. Hungry. Homeless. When teachers are underpaid. Kids not being educated properly. People turning into criminals or suicide out of desperation and despair! This is just a glimpse of why I hate the government that isnt aligned wi th American ideals.

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