Observers remain divided on the eventual outcome of border incident.
BY uprooting six wooden stakes close to the Vietnamese border, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has again cast himself in a familiar role as the agent provocateur of Cambodian politics. The act, committed during a Buddhist ceremony in Svay Rieng on October 25, was small but symbolic: With attentions distracted by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s high-profile standoff with the Thai government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the border stunt gave voice to the enduring Khmer fear of Vietnamese domination and was a none-too-subtle hint about the cosy relationship between Hanoi and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
But with the issuing of an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy by Svay Rieng provincial court last week – effectively marooning the SRP leader overseas – the government has upped the ante on the opposition, and political observers have offered a mixed analysis on what moves it has left to play.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Monday that the party had “a clear policy” for negotiating Sam Rainsy’s return: the release from prison of those detained in land disputes with powerful business interests, including the two Svay Rieng villagers detained for involvement in the October 25 incident.
On the one hand, the fact that an arrest warrant is hanging over the opposition leader’s head is hardly novel. “Sam Rainsy has been out of the country around half of his time as opposition leader,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “This is nothing new.”
The most recent point of comparison is Sam Rainsy’s absence during 2005-06, when he lived in self-exile in France for a year after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison on criminal defamation charges. Sam Rainsy only returned to Cambodia in February 2006 after recanting comments about Hun Sen and receiving a Royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.
Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, described the issuing of an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy as a “political game” that could pose concerns for the opposition leader. He said it was hard to know if it would mirror the events of four years ago, but that if he remains overseas much longer it will be detrimental for the SRP. “You need all hands on deck in order to help build the country,” he said.
Despite the precedent of 2005-06, Ou Virak said that one new problem for Sam Rainsy is that repeated petitions to international organisations – one of the few cards the leader has left to play – could be falling on increasingly deaf ears. “You can do it once or twice, but governments get fatigued, donors get fatigued.… You’re running a risk of people no longer paying attention,” he said. “Eventually he’ll have to take it to the next level, and that means facing possible imprisonment.” And unlike 2005-06, he added, the prospect of a political settlement seems slim.
Writing in an email from Paris, Sam Rainsy said he would give the authorities time to respond to his “consistent and legitimate offers” before returning to Cambodia, but also held out the prospect of reassessing the situation with his colleagues and political allies if he receives no answer.
Either way, he said, his absence is unlikely to hurt the party. “By past experiences, I can say it affects the SRP only to a limited and manageable extent, but my ‘absence’ from Cambodia gives us many opportunities elsewhere,” he said.
His 2005-06 absence was compensated for by the “continuous presence on the spot of countless competent and dedicated colleagues at all levels”, Sam Rainsy said, pointing to the party’s successes at the 2007 commune council polls as evidence that it would not be detrimental to the party.
Others predicted a resolution to the issue on similar terms to 2006. Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said the current situation, like the earlier standoff, would likely reach an equilibrium before the next cycle of elections in 2012-13.
“[In 2005] the political space was narrowed down for more than a year and later on, when the election approached, the situation became better again,” he said, adding that the ruling party could not move towards a one-party state without undermining its democratic legitimacy. “When election time approaches, they have to show the public and that they believe in democratic principles in order to attract support,” he said.
Ou Virak, however, was not optimistic about the likelihood of Sam Rainsy returning to face jail. “He’s no Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “He’s not going to come back.”