Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy has made a last minute retreat, canceling his return trip to Phnom Penh where he risks being jailed amid a crackdown on dissenting voices.
Instead, the head of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) said he would return “in the next few days” on advice from colleagues who urged him to return in broad daylight and allow some time for international diplomacy to take its course. He was scheduled to return late Monday evening from Korea three days after a warrant was issued for his arrest, which human rights groups say is politically motivated.
The warrant was in regards to a two year sentence handed to Sam Rainsy seven years ago for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong over his relationship with the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Hor Namhong insists he was a victim of the murderous regime.
The case was resurrected by the courts just days after two opposition lawmakers were beaten near the steps of Parliament by thugs linked to General Kun Kim, longtime confidante of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who backed recent pro-government rallies. CNRP deputy Kem Sokha was subsequently stripped of his post as vice-president of the National Assembly.
“If I must die, let it be it,” Sam Rainsy was quoted as saying by the Phnom Penh Post shortly after reorganizing his itinerary.
The opposition leader likes to compare himself with pro-democracy icons Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, although he also has a history of leaving the country, often for his residence in France, when faced with time in jail.
Sam Rainsy survived a grenade attack in 1997 which left 16 supporters dead. He fled into exile in 2005 amid fear of arrest and again in 2010 after he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years behind bars for the uprooting of border posts during a heated standoff along the frontier with Vietnamese authorities amid claims that they were land grabbing.
A king’s pardon enabled Sam Rainsy’s triumphant return when more than 250,000 people lined the streets from the airport to the city, cheering as his convoy passed, before he contested the 2013 polls.
Analysts say the latest fracas is part of Hun Sen’s strategy to shut down opposition voices ahead of commune elections in 2017 and the next national ballot a year later. The prime minister’s popularity has dwindled in recent years.
His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has ruled since the Khmer Rouge was ousted from the capital 36 years ago. It once again returned to power following general elections in 2013 but with a sharply reduced majority after a generation of younger voters sided with the CNRP. That victory also came amid allegations of widespread cheating and a year of bloody protests and deadly civil disobedience that followed.
Earlier, on Monday, hundreds had gathered at Freedom Park in the capital, where Sam Rainsy has so often been feted by his supporters. They began arriving as the CPP-controlled National Assembly met and stripped Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity to enable his arrest in the defamation case.
Still, Sam Rainsy insisted he would return within a matter of days.
“Cambodia is my homeland – I absolutely must go back and go to rescue our nation. So there is no change in my plan,” he told a group of Cambodians living in South Korea.
The authorities will no doubt welcome his return and throw him in jail if he comes back. Whether Sam Rainsy has the resolve to cope with that will no doubt determine when exactly he makes his return.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt