Cambodian opposition leaders in Malaysia: What is it about?

Cambodia’s self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, gestures to supporters after being prevented from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok at Roissy Airport in Paris, France November 7, 2019. — Reuters pic
Cambodia’s self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, gestures to supporters after being prevented from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok at Roissy Airport in Paris, France November 7, 2019. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 11 — High-profile Cambodian opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua are currently in Malaysia, but why are they here and what is the significance of their presence?

Here’s a quick recap by Malay Mail of the events that have led to them landing in Malaysia:

Who is Sam Rainsy and what does he want?

Sam Rainsy is the co-founder and acting president of opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had won close to half of the popular vote in past elections.

The 70-year-old has been in self-imposed exile in France since 2015 from Cambodia amid alleged politically-motivated charges and convictions against him, the second time he was forced to do so.

On August 16, the CNRP decided that Rainsy and other leaders would return to Cambodia on November 9 — a significant day as it is also Cambodia’s 66th Independence Day.

Since then, Rainsy — who holds dual French and Cambodian citizenship — has on his Twitter account issued challenges to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to step down if one million supporters show up on Rainsy’s planned return on November 9.

On Twitter, Rainsy appeared to have taken inspiration from Malaysia’s own change of government in the 2018 elections as he described Malaysia as having a “vibrant democracy”, adding that he wants to return to Cambodia — despite the convictions and arrest warrants against him there — to reverse the country’s alleged lurch to authoritarian rule.

(Cambodia’s Supreme Court had in November 2017 make a final ruling to dissolve the CNRP which was the country’s main opposition party and ban 118 of its senior officials from political activity for the next five years. Hun Sen’s party won all seats in the July 2018 national elections that have been criticised.)

Arguing that the Cambodian government is refusing to hold real elections with the participation of the opposition, Rainsy had tweeted in September and October that he hoped that his planned return would spark a non-violent gathering of Cambodians to restore democracy.

Rainsy denied that it would be a “colour revolution” or a “coup” as claimed by the Cambodian prime minister, likening instead to the Philippines’ peaceful People Power movement in 1986 that forced dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down as president.

File photo showing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Hun Sen administration in the lead-up to November 9 had reportedly arrested and charged CNRP members for allegedly plotting to overturn the government. — AFP handout pic
File photo showing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Hun Sen administration in the lead-up to November 9 had reportedly arrested and charged CNRP members for allegedly plotting to overturn the government. — AFP handout pic

What was the response?

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held the position for about 34 years since 1985, has taken a strong stance and issued warnings against the return of Rainsy and other in-exile opposition leaders to the country as well as any show of support for them.

Following the August announcement of Rainsy’s planned return, the Hun Sen administration in the lead-up to November 9 had reportedly arrested and charged CNRP members for allegedly plotting to overturn the government.

Cambodia’s civil aviation authority was reported on November 1 saying that commercial airlines are not allowed to board Rainsy and warning that these companies would otherwise face prosecution.

Hun Sen had also reportedly said that arrest warrants had been sent to Cambodia’s neighbouring countries for Rainsy.

The Cambodian administration had also reportedly deployed troops at the Cambodia-Thailand border to prevent a return on land by Rainsy and other opposition leaders, with wanted posters for them posted up at all border checkpoints.

Cambodia has revoked passports for 12 CNRP officials including CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua (pic) due to their alleged fleeing of law enforcement abroad. — Reuters pic
Cambodia has revoked passports for 12 CNRP officials including CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua (pic) due to their alleged fleeing of law enforcement abroad. — Reuters pic

Efforts to return

Rainsy had on Twitter showed his October 31 letter to Thailand’s prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to ask to be allowed to fly into Bangkok on November 8, and to then enter to Cambodian border town Poipet near Thailand’s border town Aranyaprathet.

But on November 6, Prayut said he had ordered an entry ban on Rainsy from entering Thailand.

“According to our commitment to Asean, we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism,” he was reported saying by Thai news outlet Bangkok Post, citing Thailand’s and Cambodia’s status as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members.

Rainsy was on November 7 then blocked from flying on a Thai Airways flight from Paris to Thailand, which resulted in him changing his plans and flying in to Kuala Lumpur International Airport on November 9.

With no chance in sight for Rainsy to fulfil the initial plan to enter Cambodia by November 9, Cambodia’s deputy prime minister Sar Kheng reportedly said the government had not made any announcement to bar Rainsy or his colleagues from entering the country but also warned that they would have to face justice there.

Cambodian activists Ngoeum Keatha and Heng Seang Leang were detained by Malaysia on November 4 while waiting to fly to Thailand, but were released on November 7. 

CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua was denied entry to Thailand in late October, while her November 6 press conference in Indonesia was reportedly disrupted by Cambodia’s ambassador there and with the Cambodian Embassy there later asking Indonesia to arrest and deport her to her home country.

On the same day, Cambodia revoked passports for 12 CNRP officials including Mu Sochua due to their alleged fleeing of law enforcement abroad.

Mu Sochua who has dual citizenship later used a US passport when flying to Malaysia, where she was held by authorities until her release on November 7. She had said she was held for 20 hours and had on November 8 said the plan to enter Cambodia by land remains.

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said Malaysia had made its decision on matters within the country’s borders without pressure from anyone, and said the Cambodian politicians were allowed to enter the country and are free to meet their friends. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said Malaysia had made its decision on matters within the country’s borders without pressure from anyone, and said the Cambodian politicians were allowed to enter the country and are free to meet their friends. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

The status now

PKR’s Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar was reported to have issued an invitation on November 9 to Sam Rainsy and his wife and fellow opposition leader Saumura Tioulong to meet Malaysian MPs in Parliament next Tuesday.

Nurul Izzah, who also happens to be the daughter of PKR president and former opposition figure Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, had however penned the letter in her capacity as MP.

Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah on November 10 explained that the Cambodian opposition leaders including Mu Sochua were not detained, but said they had instead undergone standard checks following Cambodia’s request for a list of opposition leaders to be deported to Cambodia.

Saifuddin said Malaysia had made its decision on matters within the country’s borders without pressure from anyone, and said the Cambodian politicians were allowed to enter the country and are free to meet their friends.

Local daily New Straits Times reported Saifuddin as explaining that Sochua and the two other Cambodians who were released together on November 7 did not enter using Cambodian passports or as Cambodian citizens and that they could not be sent to Cambodia as requested, but also expressed hope that they would not use Malaysia as a platform to mobilise their political movement.

A Khmer Times report on November 7 had cited a Cambodian official in saying that Malaysia has no extradition treaty with Cambodia unlike the latter’s pact with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and that decisions on extraditions for countries with no such agreement would depend on their domestic laws.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had on November 7 also cited the Asean principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and said the authorities does not wish to let Malaysia be used as a base for struggle in other countries.

Also on November 10, a court in Cambodia announced the relaxing of bail conditions for CNRP president Kem Sokha, allowing him to leave his house and travel freely within the country as long as he does not engage in political activities. (CNRP had on November 8 repeated its call for his release, while also asking for Rainsy and others to be allowed entry to Cambodia on November 9.)

Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and placed in prison for a year, before being put under house arrest. He pointed out on November 10 that he had been detained for two years without being found guilty and wanted his charge of alleged conspiracy with foreign powers to be dropped.  

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