A year ago today, opposition leader Sam Rainsy turned his back on a promise to return to Cambodia and face down a two-year prison sentence for defamation revealed while he was abroad.
Few had believed the former investment banker would make good on the promise, and many of those who did would still have had trouble feigning surprise when he announced the decision to again go into exile mere hours before his flight was scheduled to land.
At least publicly, officials from the Cambodia National Rescue Party – a precarious coalition he established in July 2012 with his onetime rival and now-deputy leader Kem Sokha – for months said they supported his choice to again flee abroad. Then, in October, that suddenly changed.
“If Sam Rainsy came to be with me, it would be better,” Sokha said in a televised interview. His daughter, Kem Monovithya, who is also a party official for the CNRP, even called Rainsy “Peter Pan” due to his perceived childishness in continually running away from arrest threats.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, protected from any punishment by the implicit royal stamp of approval he alone brings the CNRP, last month then threatened to call a party vote on whether Rainsy should stay abroad or return. He was convinced, apparently, that “return” would triumph.
“I don’t pay any attention,” Rainsy said about the open dissent by telephone from France yesterday. “This is not from the party, and I am responsible for the party. Anyone can say what they want, but what is most important is the final decision of the party.”
Rainsy, who has pledged to return before the commune council elections in June 2017, said his decision to remain abroad instead of risking arrest had always been approved by the party machinery, and that any dissent against that just showed the party was broad and mature.
“This just shows the party is democratic and that criticism is accepted,” he said. “The rest is not important. I concentrate on what is important.”
While such dissent has been amplified by Sokha’s contrasting decision to remain in Cambodia – unmolested, so far – in the face of arrest threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen this year, it has nonetheless indeed only been a small coterie of officials who have felt comfortable enough to criticise Rainsy publicly.
His most vocal critic, Monovithya, declined to be interviewed for this story yesterday, while Thomico could not be reached.
However, opposition critics of Rainsy’s escape – coming, as it did, after two years of him pledging never to do so – can also be found outside of Cambodia.
The CNRP – like all opposition parties before it – relies heavily on the finances secured during trips to meet the wealthier Cambodian diaspora, and growing frustrations with Rainsy’s decision to flee abroad while Sokha remains in Cambodia has led to dwindling enthusiasm for opening purse strings.
Roeun Veasna, the vice president of the Cambodia-America Alliance (CAA), which is not officially affiliated with the CNRP but works with elected US officials to pressure Hun Sen’s government, said that Rainsy’s seeming faint-heartedness has long been “wearing thin” with supporters abroad.
“Sam Rainsy’s decision to go into self-imposed exile is ultimately his decision and we can appreciate that,” Veasna said. “His decision, however, has proven to be a liability to his movement and political ambitions given his promises and statements prior to his exile.
“He helped set the stage for a stare down with Prime Minister Hun Sen, but when the clock struck midnight, he blinked first. It is a classic childhood story of the kid wanting to do good, but has to defeat the bully.”
Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said Rainsy’s absence may in fact have done little except to shift the focus of Hun Sen’s wrath and give Sokha the opportunity to show his bravery.
“The political trajectory inside the country has changed because the ruling party added troubles for Kem Sokha. In previous years, it was Mu Sochua,” Ear said. Both Sokha now and Sochua, in 2009, stayed in the country to stand up to the premier’s threats without being arrested.
Although more than 20 CNRP officials and activists have in fact been jailed over the past 18 months, Ear added that he believed that Hun Sen was reluctant to jail senior leaders like Rainsy, Sokha or Sochua when they stood up and fought his theatric threats of arrest.
“The game does not change, it’s always been: Eeny, meeny, miny, moe / Catch a tiger by the toe / If he hollers, let him go / Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” he said.
And while Sokha’s “hollering” from within the CNRP’s headquarters has forced Hun Sen to back away from his threats, Rainsy, who has led the opposition for more than 20 years and turns 68 next year, has said he is less willing to try his luck at the hands of a regime he knows can be brutal.
Since Rainsy’s escape a year ago, the government has also banned him from returning – and any airlines from flying him in – allowing him to tout the fact he is no longer in “self-imposed exile”, but also complicating any plans he has to return in future.
But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and has been one of the most vocal proponents for a quick return, said that if Rainsy wanted to be the country’s opposition leader, he had an obligation to return to the country.
“There’s no problem. Sam Rainsy does not need to wait for the government. Why is he waiting for the government to give him an opportunity? They never compete fairly, so don’t wait,” Buntenh said.
“Come by other means. There are ships, there are buses, there are vans. By whatever means, just come. If the government dares to arrest Sam Rainsy, or kill Sam Rainsy, it means he would be a hero.”
In any case, Veasna of the CAA said that Rainsy’s presence abroad for long stretches of time would not do severe damage to his popularity inside the country given the sagging popularity of the government, but that a future return to be with Sokha near the coming elections would still benefit the party.
“Sam Rainsy still has a big role to play in Cambodia. Although his credibility has been jeopardised during his self-imposed exile, he can still be very useful to his party,” Veasna said, adding that Rainsy should now be focusing on passing the baton.
“The most responsible thing that a leader can do, and what he should do, is prepare young and new leaders to carry on their party agenda,” he said.
Rainsy said that he was focused only on winning the 2018 national election and that the importance of his absence from Cambodia – and the dissent against him – had been overplayed in the media.
“It has been exaggerated and blown out of proportion. The party maintains its unity, and whatever decision is made is with the full support of all party leaders. So there is no tension, and no problems whatsoever.”