Self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Saturday announced he will return to Cambodia before this month’s national election, despite facing more than a decade of jail time for criminal convictions many believe to be politically motivated.
In a video posted to his Facebook page, and in a series of brief notices disseminated by his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party president explained that his attempts to negotiate a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni with the approval of Prime Minister Hun Sen had failed. But he would nevertheless return “by my own volition and fully aware of the personal risks that I will run, to return before Voting Day”.
“I have decided to return because my presence as leader of the opposition and the fate that awaits me will be a test of the reality of the ‘free and fair elections’ promised by the Paris Accords, which also promised for Cambodia ‘a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism’," he continued in an emailed statement.
In his video, widely disseminated on social media, Rainsy went even further, saying: “I agree to sacrifice my life for national homeland, daring to die myself to rescue the nation from catastrophe.”
Several calls to Rainsy went unanswered yesterday and his wife, lawmaker Saumura Tioulong, who is currently in Europe with Rainsy, said he was too busy to speak with the press.
“At this stage, I don’t think I would have anything else to add. Probably in the next few days we will make more announcements,” she said.
Both she and CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said a specific date had yet to be agreed upon.
“We are discussing that. We did not yet come up with a conclusion. We had a meeting [earlier yesterday], but we did not come to a conclusion for a date. But he is coming back before the election for sure,” he said.
Mu Sochua, CNRP public affairs head, said a planned committee meeting to set the date of Rainsy's return failed to take place last night due to technical issues.
While Rainsy and other senior party officials have previously claimed that he would return, there has never before been an unequivocal public announcement. He faces a total of 11 years in jail for producing maps he claimed demonstrated Vietnamese territorial encroachment on Cambodia, uprooting border posts and making defamatory accusations against Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong.
Council of Minister’s spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday Rainsy was welcome to return if that was his decision.
“The government does not have any stance to value Excellency’s leaving the Kingdom of Cambodia and also does not have any stance for Excellency Sam Rainsy’s return. It is Excellency Sam Rainsy’s personal issue,” Phay Siphan said.
Siphan said that, for him personally, Rainsy’s fate remained under the rule of law and any solution outside of the judiciary was beyond his purview.
Ho Sethy, chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cabinet and the premier’s personal spokesman, Eang Sophalleth, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
To return or not to return
Should Rainsy follow through and return, observers say, he could dramatically bolster his party’s chances in the ballot and force the ruling Cambodian People’s Party into uncomfortable territory.
He has not set foot on Cambodian soil since 2009, and there has been increasing public pressure for him to return.
The CPP could intervene to free him from arrest by requesting a pardon from the king, thus quelling public backlash and potential international condemnation of the electoral process, which is already facing heavy scrutiny.
But that could be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of Hun Sen and allow Rainsy to claim to have triumphed over him, while imprisoning Rainsy could help establish a martyr.
Political analyst Kem Ley said yesterday that such scenarios, and whether or not Rainsy’s return would help or hinder his party, depended on the terms on which he returned.
“I have recommended to him many times: you must come without apology letter. You must come back, and you can face a trial and you must go to prison if they charge, if you want your party to get more popularity,” he said.
In 2006, Rainsy – then, too, in self-imposed exile – negotiated a political solution allowing him to return to Cambodia after his parliamentary immunity was stripped and he was convicted of defaming Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Rainsy was required to write a letter of apology to Hun Sen, a move that would advantage the government should it be repeated this time, Kem Ley said.
“If I’m a government leader, I would allow Sam Rainsy to come to Cambodia with a strong apology letter, because when the CPP does that, they will get more support than they currently have,” he said.
“If he comes without an apology letter, he can go to the court, he can go to prison, [but] I think not only the international community will put pressure on the government but also the local people”.
A senior official from the Royal Palace who spoke on the condition of anonymity said no request to pardon Rainsy had been submitted by the government to King Sihanomi.
In the absence of a pardon, Rainsy’s return would dominate the political agenda right before the election, and political analyst Chea Vannath says it could even “change the outcome of the election itself”.
“I think for the political tactic, he should come because it would really make an impact. In this world . . . any move is a risk; the greater the risk the greater the achievement,” she said.
“People do not want to take the risk because there is so much uncertainty. But if we look at any national heroes from countries around the world, Mandela or Gandhi . . . they took a big risk.”
In the past year alone, Rainsy’s case has been raised, variously, by US President Barack Obama, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and UN special rapporteur Surya Subedi.
And though the government has brushed off international “interference” in the elections, they have also reversed controversial decisions based on just such pressure – such as the much-criticised foreign radio ban, which was revoked almost immediately amid backlash.
A high-ranking party member speaking on condition of anonymity said Rainsy was seeking just that type of pressure and was currently in Belgium lobbying European and US officials to escort him back to Cambodia.
The Australian, French and European embassies did not respond to inquiries from the Post yesterday or could not be reached.
When asked if the US had been involved in any negotiations to ensure Rainsy could return on terms acceptable both to himself and the government, embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh would say only that: “the United States believes in a free and fair electoral process that requires a level playing field and the full and unfettered participation of all political parties, including the opposition”.
But if it is international outrage he needs, it is the local reaction his return could stir that would most impact his chances, analyst Vannath said.
“For me, as a local citizen, I am more concerned about the local reaction, the reaction from the public. Because in any country the change comes from the citizens itself. The outsiders are just the catalyst for change, not the change itself,” she said.
Urging his return
A range of people interviewed last week overwhelmingly supported the idea of Rainsy returning.
Touch Thea, a first-year student from the electrical department at the Multiple Technologies Institute, told the Post she believed the government should drop the charges against Rainsy, but even if they didn’t, he should come back and face the music.
“Even if the government does not drop the charges against him or he is arrested by government officials, he should return to Cambodia to respond the supporters.”
Sean Bunsan, a 47-year-old tuk-tuk driver, said he believed the government would definitely arrest Rainsy.
“However, he should come back to Cambodia to stop the pride of the CPP,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA