The loudly trumpeted return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy to Cambodia is causing headaches across Southeast Asia, even though his chances of getting across the border and sparking a popular rebellion are quite low.
The former banking executive with an aversion for prison and political martyrdom, who spends most of his time at home in Paris, no doubt knows this himself. He is also well aware that the United States and Western countries are focusing on trade sanctions for Cambodia, while Europe is considering the removal of trade preferences, all in retaliation for last year’s election which banned Sam Rainsy from contesting.
That’s precisely why the hype around his return on Saturday, Independence Day in Cambodia, matters.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recognizes this and has enlisted the help of friendly governments that border his country to ensure a land crossing is impossible from Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. He has also warned airlines – only a few have direct flights into Phnom Penh from outside the region – that they would be complicit in an attempted coup if they allowed him to board. There are arrest warrants out for the former head of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) his deputies and supporters, offering legal justification for any police intervention by any of the ASEAN countries that might get involved.
CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua has gained entry into Malaysia after being denied entry in Thailand, where she was to join Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders in a march across the border with the intention of arresting Hun Sen. This plays well for Sam Rainsy and bodes badly for Hun Sen and Cambodia where the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, remains under house arrest and at least 20 of his supporters have been jailed in recent weeks.
By refusing Sam Rainsy entry to Cambodia and embroiling neighboring governments and threatening airlines, Hun Sen has broadened the scope of the issue. And this will enable Sam Rainsy to allege a much wider conspiracy with ASEAN duplicity, even though other ASEAN countries, particularly those in maritime Southeast Asia, will no doubt think carefully before leaping onto this bandwagon.
On the part of Sam Rainsy, it may seem like a smart strategy from the moral high ground. But it is also one that ignores the plight of the CNRP’s long suffering supporters who would bear the brunt of Sam Rainsy’s inability to live up to promises that he would risk jail and return. Instead, they have to live with constant threats of carnage which have been heightened in recent weeks by government propaganda in the form of documentary that compares the CNRP with Islamic State warning Cambodia could be the world’s next Aleppo if Sam Rainsy has his way.
Sam Rainsy has also been active on the propaganda front in swearing he’ll lead a “tsunami of supporters” into Cambodia, arrest Hun Sen and rescue Cambodia from one-party rule. Speaking from his home in Paris, in a video posted online, he said: “This may just be the last time that you see me alive as a free man.”
It was a vintage performance, which involved him comparing his mission with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is known as a brutal dictator, has vowed to arrest me and ordered the armed forces to destroy what he calls the rebels that I will be leading. He said. “My most dedicated colleagues have been assassinated, arrested or forced into exile. I therefore have no option left but to return to Cambodia in a non-violent way to restore democracy,” he added.
This was produced knowing full-well that his chances of entering the country are far from likely. There is little chance of this happening, particularly when the Hun Sen government has done all it can to make sure it does not.
Irrespective of whether this occurs or not, Sam Rainsy will nonetheless at least succeed in throwing the international spotlight on Cambodia’s elite when they can least afford it and drag neighboring countries into a domestic political fracas which they can do without. Meanwhile, Cambodians on the ground, as always, can only watch this all play out.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at lukeanthonyhunt