Last November, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to a wager with the exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Broadly speaking, the understanding was that if, on the one hand, by March 3, the government hadn’t released Kem Sokha, president of the now-dissolved main opposition party, then Hun Sen should resign after 35 years in power, while, on the other hand, if Kem Sokha is released, then Sam Rainsy will return to Cambodia after more than three years in exile to face imprisonment.
But with memories of that wager now fading – most analysts think neither side would ever keep to the conditions, anyway – Sam Rainsy still promises to make an momentous return to Cambodia, an event, he thinks, that will galvanize opposition against Hun Sen’s one-party rule.
On February 9, Sam Rainsy appealed on his Facebook page for Cambodians to “prepare for my return and help trigger a positive change in Cambodia this year,” while urging the “population from all provinces and cities and from all walks of life to join the decisive battle that lies ahead.” Once he returns, he wrote, he would help Cambodians recover their land allegedly confiscated by businesses with government connections, cancel numerous 99-year leases on land and forests, and “confiscate the ill-gotten fortune of the Hun Sen family and their cronies – who currently control Cambodia’s economy – and use the money to reimburse the debts of poor Cambodian families.”
While that might seem well and good in theory, the problem is Sam Rainsy hasn’t yet said when he would return. This might be for a range of reasons, including safety issues, him wanting to raise the money he thinks will be necessary for such a return, or perhaps a lack of seriousness in coming back at all, which some cynics may already subscribe to.
What is much clearer is that the odds of him being arrested or detained upon arrival is quite high. It is difficult to see him not immediately arrested (if not worse) once he lands in Phnom Penh, for the numerous politically-motivated charges that have been leveled against him in recent years. Hun Sen and senior government officials have all said as much in recent weeks, describing him invariably as a “convict,” “traitor,” threat to national security and, according to the prime minister’s eldest son and second-highest ranking military official, Hun Manet, a “nation destroyer.”
Sam Rainsy, however, thinks that he will instead be greeted by thousands of his supporters, just as he was when returning from an earlier stint in exile just before the 2013 general election, which the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) almost won. Sam Rainsy served as the CNRP’s president from its inception in 2012 until he was forced to resign in early 2017 due to legal pressure from the government. Kem Sokha, the vice president, briefly took over leadership before he was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges.
If he does fail to return this year, it wouldn’t be the first time that Sam Rainsy has promised his homecoming only to end up staying abroad. Indeed, previous instances where he has cried wolf on this score have only intensified doubts about his new calls for a return.
Yet, at the same time, so much of this issue is lacquered with personal opinions on Sam Rainsy. In Hun Sen’s Cambodia, the journalist Sebastian Strangio described Sam Rainsy as the “political gadfly” to Hun Sen. But in many ways he is also a gadfly to those who comment on politics. In private conversations, and sometimes in print, commentators, diplomats, and journalists still comfortably reach for the word “coward” as a suitable adjective, a description the government likes to apply, too. Some consider him arrogant and unnecessarily boastful. Others criticize the way the often undemocratic ways he runs the pro-democracy CNRP.
Whichever way you look at it, the party is in shambles today. Loyalists to Kem Sokha say Sam Rainsy led a “party coup” when he recently become acting president at an exiled CNRP meeting in America. Sam Rainsy, quite reasonably, argues that Kem Sokha remains under house arrest, so cannot be expected to fulfill his duties as party president.
But whatever faults may be directed at Sam Rainsy, it cannot be said that he’s unpopular. Indeed, though some might not like it, he is more popular – or, at least, more widely known – than Kem Sokha. For many ordinary Cambodians, his name is synonymous not only with the CNRP (in the party’s main chant, his and Kem Sokha’s names come before its slogan: “change”) but also with the entire political opposition. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, when he resigned (or was fired, depending on who you ask) as finance minister after growing tired of the corrupt actions of his colleagues, he has been the mainstay of Cambodian politics, going on to form several of his own political parties. If asked to describe Cambodia’s recent political history, an easy answer is Hun Sen versus Sam Rainsy.
Such popularity would certainly give weight to his belief that the Cambodian public will rally to support his return. So might present conditions in Cambodia, which would make his promised return far more cataclysmic now than in a previous year. The United States and European Union have been persistent in their criticism of the Cambodian government since the dissolution of the CNRP in late 2017, and now threaten to impose financial or economic sanctions, including withdrawing Cambodia from the EU’s preferential trade deal, which could severely weaken its export-driven economy. But whether these are merely empty warnings or actually followed through with will likely be seen this year.
Sam Rainsy most likely knows that, at a time when the eyes of Western governments are directed on Phnom Penh, it would be extremely unwise for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to arrest him (or worse) if he does return. Moreover, it would be yet another issue for the government to think about, as its negotiations with the EU don’t appear to be going all too well.
Equally important, there is a sneaking suspicion that the United States and EU could soon lose interest in Cambodia as other geopolitical issues arise, such as the crisis in Venezuela. Exiled CNRP politicians, like vice president Mu Sochua, have been persistent in retraining the eyes of Brussels and Washington back on Cambodia, as with the letter she sent last week to Federica Mogherini, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy. Quite clearly, the CNRP knows that if it stands any chance of becoming a legal entity in Cambodia again, it depends on the actions of foreign governments.
This is the real wager that Sam Rainsy could soon make. It is not one with Hun Sen that matters most, though his possible return will certainly test whether the prime minister’s threats to exterminate the opposition are rhetorical or real. Instead, his is a wager with foreign governments. Up until now, they have loudly called for political progress in Cambodia, including the reinstatement of the CNRP, and have said they would back up their calls through sanctions and trade cuts. Should Sam Rainsy return, he will be gambling on how much the international community is actually willing to support change in Cambodia.