Three days after a warrant was issued for his arrest, Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy yesterday backed off a pledge to return to the Kingdom and face the prospect of jail, but insisted he would arrive soon.
A day of drama that began with the National Assembly’s permanent committee stripping Rainsy of his lawmaker status ended with the threat of protests having seemingly dissipated, though large numbers of armed police patrolled the area around Phnom Penh International Airport into the night.
Rainsy, who now faces a two-year prison sentence stemming from a 2011 conviction for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, had originally been scheduled to arrive at 10:20pm on a flight from South Korea.
But in a Facebook post at about 4pm yesterday, Rainsy, who had told supporters in Seoul he was prepared to return and “die” if necessary, said he would instead return in “the next few days”.
The opposition leader said that consultations with party members in Cambodia and a number of “international pro-democracy organisations” had suggested he should arrive in Phnom Penh “in broad daylight”. Rainsy also said that he wanted to leave time for diplomatic intervention, with the objective of reaching a “peaceful solution”.
An opposition source said the delay was to avoid further provoking Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was “clearly crazy”.
Yesterday, the United States and British embassies warned their citizens of potential unrest if Rainsy was arrested.
Though one analyst considered the decision “responsible” to avoid potential violence, others have suggested the move leaves Rainsy appearing weak and marks a lost opportunity to follow the example of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who willingly spent years under house arrest.
Rainsy recently drew parallels between the success of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy over Myanmar’s military junta in that country’s recent elections and the CNRP’s own hopes for 2017 and 2018.
Those comments appeared to have upset Prime Minister Hun Sen who, in a Facebook post on Thursday, decried the comparison and foreshadowed legal action against the opposition leader.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the events of the past few months had built to this “test of wills” in which Hun Sen seemed to have a clear early advantage.
“This was the moment for Sam Rainsy to have his ‘Aung San Suu Kyi moment’, to stand up bravely and call Hun Sen’s bluff,” Strangio said. “Whatever the reason for Rainsy’s delayed return, it’s hard not to see it as yet another in a long line of capitulations to the prime minister’s bullying.”
Yesterday, following a meeting with the Ministry of Justice, the National Assembly’s permanent committee stripped Rainsy of his lawmaker status, leaving him without parliamentary immunity. The session was boycotted by the CNRP.
Hours earlier, Interior Minister Sar Kheng had announced the formation of a special committee to enforce the arrest warrant against Rainsy, led by Interior Ministry Secretary of State Em Sam An and National Police Commissioner Neth Saveoun.
The warrant said the request for enforcement was made by Hor Namhong’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, on Friday.
The Phnom Penh court swiftly followed by ordering police to arrest Rainsy so he could serve a long-standing two-year prison term for defaming Namhong in 2008.
At the time, Rainsy told a crowd that the deputy prime minister had run the Boeung Trabek prison under the Khmer Rouge.
The case’s conviction was delivered in absentia in 2011 while Rainsy was still living in self-exile in France, where he fled to avoid charges from 2009 connected with ripping out border markers on the Vietnam border in Svay Rieng province.
The opposition leader – who also went into self-exile in 2005 after being charged with defaming Hun Sen – was granted a royal pardon in 2013 and returned for the election. He took his assembly seat after the CNRP and CPP struck a political deal in July last year.
But in a statement, National Assembly President Heng Samrin cited the Cambodian Constitution, Provision 83 of the assembly’s internal regulations and Article 139 of the Law on the Election of Members of the Assembly, as grounds to oust Rainsy.
Talking to reporters after the decision, CPP lawmaker and assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said the 2013 pardon, which allowed Rainsy to return for the election, did not cover the “private” defamation charge.
He said that while Rainsy was permitted to be a lawmaker under the “political compromise” between the parties, it did not take into account Namhong’s long-dormant case.
The opposition, civil society and the international community, including the United States Embassy, yesterday slammed Rainsy’s ousting as unlawful.
CNRP spokesman Eng Chhay Eang questioned the CPP’s logic, asking why Rainsy was sworn in as a lawmaker by the National Election Committee, the parliament and the Royal Palace if he had been considered a criminal since his conviction was upheld.
A parliamentary legal adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said the committee’s decision, particularly as it was made without a plenary vote, was a “violation of the law” and “against the constitution”.
“It’s not based either on the constitution or on the internal regulations. Article 83 speaks of replacing an MP that has abandoned his post or died, but I don’t see how you base the decision to oust him on that paragraph,” the adviser said. “He’s an elected representative of the people . . . I don’t see how a group of other MPs can just oust him permanently from that position.”
Political analyst Ou Virak said the special arrest commission and stripping of Rainsy’s MP status were “warning shots” to try keep Rainsy abroad. He also echoed Strangio’s comparisons to Suu Kyi.
“That’s where they draw the line between a great leader and the rest, when you’re willing to take very, very tough decisions. I understand as a human being we all want to be safe, but that’s why we’re not all given the Nobel Peace Prize.”
In a statement, the US Embassy said they were “deeply concerned” about the “unilateral move by the [CPP]”, calling for the arrest warrant to be dropped and for Rainsy to be reinstated immediately.
The statement then addressed the country’s worsening political climate, including the bashing of two opposition lawmakers outside parliament last month on the heels of a pro-CPP rally, and the CPP’s subsequent decision to remove CNRP deputy Kem Sokha as the parliament’s first vice president.
“These developments are harmful to Cambodian democracy and contrary to the wishes of the Cambodian people."
In another statement distributed by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, 19 NGOs condemned the government’s manipulation of the judiciary to crack down on the opposition, labelling the warrant against Rainsy “clearly politically motivated”.