Prime Minister Hun Sen used a public speech yesterday to mercilessly mock former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, taunting him to make good on a promise to return to Cambodia, sarcastically referring to him as a “hero” and even singing a few bars of a classic song suggesting his long-time rival was full of nothing more than false bravado.
The October 12 ban on Rainsy’s return was lifted on Wednesday morning after Rainsy had, in a Radio Free Asia interview the night before, called on Hun Sen to “be brave enough” to rescind it and compete with him as the opposition leader at the July 2018 national election.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony yesterday, Hun Sen said he was disappointed that Rainsy had not honoured his end of his challenge on RFA, and had instead appeared to cite the ever growing list of politically tinged criminal convictions and charges he faces as remaining “obstacles” to his return to the country.
“He said ... if the ban was lifted, he would come back immediately,” Hun Sen said. “So I called Bin Chhin, the deputy prime minister and the acting minister for the Council of Ministers, to cancel the old [order] to open the door for this brave man to enter."
“Hero, please come on in. The door’s open,” the prime minister added, explaining that he hoped Rainsy was not waiting for him to pardon his convictions. “If prison’s the obstacle, in this entire life he won’t be coming back.”
He then compared the character of the former opposition leader – who was forced by newly amended laws to step down from his position as Cambodia National Rescue Party president in March – to the boy described in Golden Era singer Sinn Sisamouth’s classic Buffalo Eats the Rice Paddy, a tale of false bravado made in an effort to woo a woman.
“The buffalo eats the rice paddy, and I don’t really dare chase it away; the buffalo walks away, and I chase after it for darling to see,” Hun Sen crooned.
“The crocodile’s in the water, and I don’t really dare to catch it; then the crocodile is dead, so I catch it so that darling can see,” he continued in his rendition.
Still not finished taking apparent glee in Rainsy’s failure to return, he also chided his long-time political opponent for not announcing his nonreturn on Facebook. “He posted it on Twitter,” he said, glaring and noting that very few Cambodians use the service. “And it was in English, too.”
Rainsy did not respond to questions about why he did not honour past pledges to return “in a matter of hours” to face his convictions if the ban was lifted. In a statement emailed to media, however, he said it was Hun Sen who was the coward for refusing him safe passage home.
“What is the point of going to jail for the sake of going to jail, or getting killed for the sake of getting killed?” Rainsy wrote, explaining it would only set the opposition back if he was to return to Cambodia to be arrested, adding that he feared he would be killed.
“Getting into the hands of Hun Sen . . . would not advance our cause; on the contrary it would be a silly gift to Hun Sen – who has continuously tried to eliminate me since the deadly March 30, 1997, grenade attack in Phnom Penh – that would rather weaken our cause and demoralize CNRP supporters,” he said.
Rainsy’s decision to once again go into self-imposed exile in 2015 – after a forgotten two-year jail sentence for defamation was suddenly rekindled – contrasted with the refusal by his successor, Kem Sokha, to do the same when repeatedly threatened with arrest by Hun Sen last year.
Sokha instead barricaded himself inside the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s offices in Phnom Penh for more than six months and challenged the premier to follow through on the threats, warning that he would unleash mass protests if he was arrested.
He was never arrested, and was pardoned late last year. Yesterday, Sokha was in Battambang and has spent the last week travelling the country delivering speeches to supporters after leading the CNRP to unprecedented gains at the June 4 commune elections.
But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said he believed the opposition was in good hands now and that Rainsy returning to the country would only help the prime minister drive a wedge into the party.
“Sam Rainsy should not try to come, because the CNRP is strong enough. He should wait for some more time, at least after the 2018 election,” Buntenh said. “Hun Sen will gain more political interests if Rainsy comes, as he can play more games with Rainsy.”
“They are teasing each other,” he said, explaining most people had long ago grown tired of their quarrelling and wanted more substance. “Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy are best friends and biggest enemy at times, so it is not new to us. I do not care much on the matter.”