Cambodian troops deployed as exiled opposition leaders plan Thai border crossing
Photo: Troops have been deployed near the Thai-Cambodian border ahead of November 9.
Some 20,000 troops have been deployed across Cambodia as exiled opposition leaders plan to return to the kingdom and face near-certain arrest on Saturday.
The high-stakes return to Cambodia has been labelled a terrorist coup plot by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who has been in power for more than 34 years.
Cambodia National Rescue Party acting leader Sam Rainsy and deputy Mu Sochua have pledged to cross over the Thai-Cambodia border.
Their party was outlawed in late 2017 ahead of national elections, in which Hun Sen’s ruling party won all 125 seats, and Mr Rainsy and Ms Sochua have been labelled fugitives after legal charges widely seen to be politically motivated.
“I am prepared to sacrifice my freedom — and even my life — to give democracy a chance, to help ensure freedom for my unfortunate people,” Mr Rainsy said last week.
But their plans appear to have been thwarted by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has said he will block Mr Rainsy’s entry into Thailand.
“I have ordered this, so he probably won’t get in,” he said.
“According to our commitment to ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism.”
Mr Rainsy told the ABC he still planned to board his flight from France to Bangkok on November 7, penning a letter to Mr Chan-ocha and saying “we will see” — he has said flights through Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Jakarta were back-up options.
However, countries within the ASEAN appeared divided on how to manage the controversy.
Ms Sochua landed in Thailand last week but where she was turned away, however she was able to enter fellow ASEAN member state Indonesia shortly after. Following a news conference in Jakarta yesterday, the Cambodian embassy requested that Ms Sochua be arrested and deported, however she was able to fly from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur overnight in an attempt to make it back to Thailand before Saturday.
Shortly after landing, reports emerged that Malaysian authorities had detained Ms Sochua and were holding her in an immigration room.
A Malaysian human rights official reportedly told Ms Sochua that she would not be deported back to Cambodia, without clarifying where authorities might send her next.
Amid the uncertainty, it is yet to be seen whether or not Mr Rainsy will be able to successfully board his flight from France to Thailand which is set to depart around 10:30pm AEDT tonight.
Culture of fear
There have been ongoing threats, intimidation and jailing of opposition supporters in the lead-up to November 9, the day Cambodia marks its independence from France.
At least 48 opposition activists have been arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the Government.
A further 160 have been interrogated — many for expressing support on social media for Mr Rainsy’s return — while the Government has released videos of CNRP supporters giving what the opposition has called “forced confessions”.
One man, who has a disability, was jailed for 18 months for writing “I want a new Prime Minister” on social media, according to local journalists.
“Force is a matter of last resort … but people know [Mr Sen’s] willing to use it,” Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, told the ABC.
Mr Rainsy was the target of a grenade attack in 1997 that killed more than a dozen people, including his bodyguard, but Mr Strangio pointed out that Mr Sen had shifted tactics to silence dissent through the courts.
He said there had been “horrific uses of violence” in recent years, and that Hun Sen had “become a master of the carefully-calibrated use of violence in targeted ways” — like the daylight murder of political analyst Kem Ley, whose wife and five sons now live as refugees in Melbourne.
CNRP co-founder and president Kem Sokha was arrested at midnight in September 2017, a month before his party was forcibly dissolved by the government-controlled courts.
He was jailed for more than a year and remains under house arrest.
Mr Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, who is also living in exile, has labelled the planned return a “PR stunt”, telling the news organisation VOD that Mr Rainsy’s political career was over.
‘[Mr Rainsy’s] lack of commitment, his ego-driven impulses, and more importantly his lack of strategic vision, has enabled Hun Sen to end his political life already,” she said.
“Worse, it has also enabled Hun Sen to stay in power.”
But for Ms Sochua, returning to her home country — and to a potential jail cell — was “a duty” to grassroots supporters who had sacrificed greatly.
“As soon as we land, we will be arrested,” Ms Sochua told the ABC.
“We do not plan on taking over by force because we don’t have force. The only force that we have is the people uprising for nonviolent change, demanding free and fair elections.”
She said the people could not continue to live “paralysed by fear” as they had under the Khmer Rouge, adding there was “nothing more valuable than democracy”.
“You cannot rebuild democracy with a small group of people against a dictatorship,” she said.
“We can make it. All you have to do is come out and stop living in fear.”
The ‘Robert Mugabe of South-East Asia’
Political analyst Meas Nee said the Government was sending mixed messages in ordering Mr Rainsy to return and face justice, and at the same time calling on ASEAN governments and airlines to block his passage.
He said the Government feared the widespread outpouring of support and jubilant scenes from 2013, when Mr Rainsy returned from exile to a welcoming crowd of half a million people.
“They clearly recall that experience and they don’t want that to happen again,” he said.
“If Rainsy decides not to come without any reason, that would be a considerable impact to his reputation, but … as long as he tries hard, people will understand.”
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan told the Phnom Penh Post that: “If the convict (Mr Rainsy) boarded an aeroplane to Thailand, he would be arrested and put into a sack and sent back to Phnom Penh.”
Mr Eysan told the ABC Mr Rainsy would be arrested on sight but was unable to explain Mr Rainsy’s alleged crimes but said Ms Sochua was “the traitor of the nation”.
“I do not believe they will come back to Cambodia,” he said, laughing.
He denied the outlawing of the opposition party undermined democracy in the country.
“Now the democracy has already developed every day,” he said.
“We have the whole country of peace and political stability. We have no reason to say the democracy in Cambodia was destroyed.”
But Australian Labor MP Julian Hill, after a recent visit to Cambodia, said that democracy had been “killed” in the kingdom.
“The Minister for Foreign Affairs and DFAT need to get real,” he said in a recent speech.
“It’s not so much a one-party state now as a one-family state, because Hun Sen is trying to become the Robert Mugabe of South-East Asia.
“Hun Sen is taking the piss.”
Mr Strangio said the stakes are high for the opposition, and that some Cambodians wouldn’t be holding their breath, as Mr Rainsy had promised in the past to return on several occasions and backed down at the last minute, citing concerns for his safety.
“The danger for the opposition is that they’ve gone all in on this. They’ve raised the political stakes for themselves to such an extent that if they don’t manage to get it, it could well undermine their credibility,” he said.
“They have been very forthright and insisting that they will return on November 9, come hell or high water. And Hun Sen is doing his best to provide both of those things.”