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.