The Council of Ministers yesterday ended the ban on the return of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, an apparent reaction to the latter’s comments the night before on a radio broadcast vowing to come back if the restrictions were dropped.
Rainsy had been in self-imposed exile since November 2015 after a warrant for his arrest was issued. His exile was formalised – despite apparent constitutional hurdles – by an October 2016 directive from the Council of Ministers banning his re-entry and airlines from allowing him to board flights to Cambodia.
Border crossings and other ports of entry were put on alert to prevent Rainsy’s return. Since he first went into exile after the resurrection of a two-year prison sentence for 2008 defamation case filed by then-Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, Rainsy has received a flurry of other convictions and charges.
The Council of Ministers announced the end of the ban in a new directive sent yesterday to National Police Chief Neth Savoeun and the head of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department Sok Phal, asking that the letter banning Rainsy’s entry be cancelled on the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The government has decided to cancel the 12th October, 2016, letter of the Council of Ministers on the case of Sam Rainsy,” the letter reads.
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua welcomed the move. “Any measure taken to respect the constitutional rights of Sam Rainsy as a Cambodian citizen is welcomed. He has a right to come back,” she said.
In a Tuesday night interview with Radio Free Asia, Rainsy had called on Hun Sen to allow airlines to bring him back to the country, saying he wanted to take on the premier in next year’s national elections.
“Please, Mr Hun Sen, be brave and do not prevent me from competing with you like boxers [in a ring],” Rainsy said on air with RFA’s Chun Chanboth.
Asked if he would return even if he weren’t pardoned of his multiple convictions, Rainsy seemed to skirt the question. “I agree to go to [Cambodia] when there is a guarantee that paves the way for me to return, to walk on Cambodian land. I will go immediately,” he said.
However, speaking to The Post prior to the June 4 commune elections, Rainsy said that his exile was unfair and that he would return to Cambodia if the ban was lifted.
“If the unconstitutional government ban forbidding all airlines companies from carrying me to Cambodia is lifted I will be in my native country in a matter of hours,” Rainsy said in an email on May 22.
Reached yesterday, Rainsy would only say that he would return after the removal of all “obstacles” that had been put in place “illegally or unfairly” to prevent his participation in any elections.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday pointed to Rainsy’s insinuation of the premier’s cowardice in his RFA interview and said that the lifting of the ban would show which party was really scared.
“He [the prime minister] wants to show Sam Rainsy’s lie to the people. And whether Sam Rainsy dares to return to the homeland or not,” Eyan said.
Phal, the Immigration Department chief, said he had received the letter and that he would implement it, but said that any questions relating specifically to the airline ban should be directed to the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation. The aviation body’s Mao Havannal could not be reached yesterday.
Cham Bunteth, political commentator and adviser to the Grassroots Democracy Party, said it was evident the government was calling Rainsy’s bluff.
“The lifting of the ban is a test from the government to see if he has the courage to come back,” Bunteth said. “But I don’t think he will ever come back without a pardon.”
While testing Rainsy’s resolve, Bunteth said the prime minister would probably not allow the former opposition leader to enter the country prior to next year’s elections given the political fillip he gave the CNRP following his return two weeks shy of the national elections in July 2013.
The election brought the CPP the closest it has to losing a majority in the National Assembly. “The prime minister must have learned his lesson,” Bunteth said.