Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was publicly accused of cowardice this week during a meeting with supporters in the United States, with one man slamming the CNRP president for lacking bravery in his decision to flee Cambodia for self-exile in Europe.
The stinging criticism – which Rainsy tried to deflect with well-trodden lines about Vietnamese influence in Cambodia – came at a Monday event in Lowell, Massachusetts, a video of which was uploaded to the CNRP president’s Facebook yesterday.
Taking the microphone at a lectern while Rainsy and the crowd watched on, one supporter bluntly accused the CNRP president of being “afraid of imprisonment”.
“The leader is afraid of imprisonment and flees his country,” the man said. “The National Rescue Party has much support around the world but when confronted with problems, Mr President has always fled from the country. They jail, Mr President flees.”
The critic, who did not give his name, compared Rainsy unfavourably with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy party, who spent 15 years under house arrest before leading her party to a landslide electoral victory last year.
“So, I would beg pardon from His Excellency. Please, I hope you can clarify. Don’t run away from prison . . . go to jail and win the citizens’ support.”
Rainsy has not stepped foot in Cambodia since November, when he avoided returning from a trip to South Korea after a warrant was issued for his arrest in a case widely believed to be politically motivated.
In comparison, his deputy Kem Sokha, who also faces a charge many have deemed political, has remained holed up in the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters.
Responding, Rainsy steered into familiar terrain, saying his arrest or death would not “rescue” the country from “the Yuon” – a reference to Vietnamese people considered derogatory by some.
“If Sam Rainsy goes to Cambodia now, and Sam Rainsy is jailed or killed, no problem, but after I die, please tell me whether Cambodia will get away from the claw of the Yuon, [tell me this] and I will agree immediately,” Rainsy said, before reminding the crowd of the grenade attack on a protest he led in 1997, which killed at least 16 people.
“I am not afraid of dying, but dying must be useful. You shouldn’t die by being duped, or being useless . . . that is an absolute no. [I need to] keep my life and defend the nation.”
He then addressed references to Myanmar, which he held was seeking a solution between “Burmese and Burmese”, claiming the problem in Cambodia was between “Khmer and Yuon”.
Responding via email yesterday, Rainsy – who previously tried to link the CNRP with the NLD’s momentum – expanded on the differences between the countries, saying Aung San Suu Kyi had never faced an assassination attempt, which he contrasted with the “attitude of Cambodian leaders”, citing the 1997 grenade attack.
“Over the last 100 years Burma has never lost any territory to any neighbouring country implementing an expansionist policy, which is not the case for Cambodia,” he added.
Speaking yesterday, political observer Ok Serei Sopheak said Rainsy’s continued use of shop-worn criticisms of Vietnam would not cut it in the current political context in which supporters wanted to see strength.
“It’s time. Those supporters are trying to find some heroism, some charismatic leaders who have the courage to say that ‘I’m here, I’m with you and I’m against injustice’ and show that by even going to jail, because whatever has been tried so far has failed,” he said.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton