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Cambodian Opposition Leaders Say Their Efforts To Return Have Been Thwarted

Leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, (from left) Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua and Kem Sokha, give speeches in Phnom Penh in 2014. Rainsy and Sochua now live in self-imposed exile outside the country, while Sokha has been jailed since 2017.
Omar Havana
Getty Images
Leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, (from left) Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua and Kem Sokha, give speeches in Phnom Penh in 2014. Rainsy and Sochua now live in self-imposed exile outside the country, while Sokha has been jailed since 2017.

Cambodia's top opposition leader is vowing to keep a promise to return and lead demonstrations against the country's long-time authoritarian leader after he was barred from boarding a flight to Southeast Asia.

Sam Rainsy, self-exiled head of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, says he was not allowed to get on a Thai Airways flight from Paris to Bangkok on Thursday, despite having purchased a ticket.

"They said they have received from very high up the instruction not to allow me to board," he told reporters at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. "I'm very shocked, I'm very disappointed. I want to go back, my people are waiting for me."

Rainsy accuses Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of trying to block his return home. The former Khmer Rouge commander, who has been in office for more than three decades, views any homecoming of the opposition leaders and their planned demonstrations as tantamount to an attempted coup. Just this year, dozens of opposition activists have been arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, and troops deployed along Cambodia's borders have reportedly been ordered to attack "on sight" should the leadership return.

Rainsy, who has been living in France for four years, told his supporters Thursday in a Facebook broadcast that he "will find a way to go to Cambodia in a short time in the future to push for change."

Just a day before, Rainy's No. 2, Mu Sochua, was detained at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia while trying to fly to Cambodia. She was released a day later, along with two other opposition activists detained earlier this week. Malaysia Human Rights Commissioner Jerald Joseph told The Associated Press that papers were being prepared to allow Mu and the others to remain in the country.

In 2017, a year ahead of national elections, Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha was arrested and the party dissolved, accused of conspiring with the U.S. to overthrow the government. Cambodian officials have repeatedly warned that any opposition leaders who return face immediate arrest. Most of them have convictions or charges pending — many of which have been handed down in absentia.

Rights groups have urged Cambodia to allow the opposition leadership to return home and have criticized other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for helping stand in the way. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The New York Timesthat "the ASEAN spirit should not be a mutual celebration in violating human rights."

Thailand has barred Cambodian opposition leaders from traveling through the country, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced Wednesday that Rainsy would be turned away. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said after Mu's detainment that he didn't want his country to be "a base for struggle in other countries" because he didn't want to be at odds with other governments.

Southeast Asia watchers say Malaysia and Thailand's actions are typical of how countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations work with one another — they don't typically like to meddle in each other's affairs.

"It used to be a cardinal sin," says Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They generally don't like to push political issues in other states."

He tells NPR that while stopping the opposition leaders from transiting through their borders is, in a way, getting involved, ASEAN's tendency has always been "to act in consensus ways, and that tends to favor established rulers, most who have been authoritarian throughout the time of ASEAN."

Kurlantzick says Rainsy and Mu are likely trying to return because the opposition in Cambodia is in disarray amid the repressive environment imposed by Hun Sen.

Rainsy, who has brokered returned from exile before, is likely using such a bold move "to rally people," Kurlantzick says. "Rainsy enjoys a grand gesture and a grand gesture is sometimes valuable."

Brian Eyler, director of Southeast Asia programs at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., notes that the opposition leaders "have been very busy lobbying for their cause outside of Cambodia's borders over the last year and a half." Should the leadership somehow make it back to Cambodia, their fates would be at the hands of the government.

Eyler also says it's an interesting time to be in Cambodia, as the country is heading into a dry season after an already devastating drought that is expected to decrease the annual fish harvest significantly and potentially throw the country into a food crisis.

"So perhaps now is the right time for democratic discourse that can bring these environmental and natural resource crises to light and the opposition party typically has played that role in moving effective policy forward within the existing government," he says. "It's important to have democratic discourse about civil issues, about environmental issues and governance issues in Cambodia."

An employee for Thai Airlines tells The Associated Press that a new booking in Sam Rainsy's name has been made for a flight on Saturday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.