Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy told everyone that he would be back in Cambodia for independence day celebrations on November 9. He never made it, and is still in exile in Paris. Game, set and match to Prime Minister Hun Sen?
Some media reports at the time suggested that the failure to return could mean the end of Sam Rainsy’s political career. Other journalists have accused him of a lack of courage – though without suggesting any alternative opposition strategy.
Opinion polls are taboo in Cambodia, so it’s hard to measure how the attempted return affected the popularity of Sam Rainsy. If his Facebook page is any guide, the episode has not dimmed his standing in Cambodia. His recent video on Facebook in which he challenged Hun Sen to put him on trial for treason in place of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha has been viewed well over a million times: bear in mind that Cambodia has a population of 15 million and that many have no Internet access.
Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy were the joint founders of the CNRP in 2012. Sam Rainsy stood down as leader in 2017, hoping to avoid his list of convictions for various offences including libel being used as grounds to justify the dissolution of the party. So Hun Sen simply arrested Kem Sokha instead for treason, dissolved the CNRP, then cast aside to seek evidence for the charge. This “evidence” largely consists of an unremarkable speech made by Kem Sokha in Australia in 2013.
This is worth repeating if you are new to the story: an exiled dissident who has spent most of the last 15 years in Paris, who has accumulated a stack of in absentia libel convictions in Cambodia’s courts, and who demands to be put on trial for the treason charge now faced by his deputy as party leader until 2017, is not facing trial because . . . the government is too scared to do it.
There’s no reason to think that Sam Rainsy’s political career won’t continue for as long as he wants it to. If the international community on which Cambodia’s export-driven economy depends makes it clear to Hun Sen that he can’t effectively banish his rivals from the country, then it will continue in Cambodia.
In the event, Sam Rainsy and CNRP leaders including vice president Mu Sochua went to Malaysia and Indonesia, where they were received by ministers and parliamentarians. This in itself represents a breach in the narrow ASEAN dogma of “non-interference” that comforts dictators everywhere. All possible avenues were attempted to reach Cambodia. It was simply impossible to enter the country. Hun Sen banned airlines from flying Sam Rainsy to Cambodia, and mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers and police, who were authorised to use all available weapons to block any arrival.
Preventive arrests of CNRP supporters were carried out, and threats made against the population to deter any repeat of the mass welcome that greeted Sam Rainsy when he last returned to Cambodia from exile in July 2013. Hun Sen even made a successful request to Thailand to prevent his entry, and so the possibility of entering Cambodia by land.
A direct flight from Wuhan to Cambodia might have been a better bet. After the outbreak of coronavirus, Cambodia maintained direct flights from Wuhan even as other countries closed them. Direct flights from the rest of China to Cambodia are still allowed, with Hun Sen openly prioritizing continued flows of investment and tourist revenue from China above the public health emergency. That dependence on China is becoming ever greater as the European Union prepares to decide on February 12 on whether to withdraw Cambodia’s access to EU markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
China clearly has its hands full dealing with coronavirus. The emergency is likely to mean that China’s economy will take a serious hit, and client regimes that need bailing out will just have to wait. Hun Sen’s request to China to be allowed to visit Wuhan this month was politely declined. Even if staggered, a withdrawal of EU free-trade rights will deal a serious blow to the Cambodian economy and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Any responsible leader would seek to avoid it. Yet Hun Sen has made nothing in the way of substantial concessions because of an unknowable mixture of fear, pride and stubbornness.
What is certain is that disregarding the democratic norms demanded by free trade partners cannot ensure a stable future for Cambodia. It’s also clear that the mass appeal of the partnership between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha endures. Democratic aspirations, evidenced by the very high turnouts in every Cambodian election since 1993 in which a choice has been allowed, can’t be wiped out with the stroke of a pen. The most important chapters in the story of Cambodia’s long journey to democratic politics remain to be written.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a freelance journalist in Paris. He co-authored Sam Rainsy’s autobiography, We Didn’t Start the Fire My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia, published shortly before Sam Rainsy’s last successful return from exile to Cambodia in 2013.