PRIME Minister Hun Sen congratulated self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy on his securing a Royal pardon and said he hoped he’d soon return to political life, according to a letter obtained yesterday.
The letter is dated Friday, the same day the Cambodia National Rescue Party president was granted a Royal pardon at the behest of Hun Sen, overturning a decade-plus of sentencing and paving the way for his repatriation ahead of the July 28 poll.
A day later, Rainsy announced he would return the morning of July 19.
“My wife and I thank you for sending condolences for my father,” reads the note signed by Hun Sen. “We also congratulate you that the King … has endorsed the letter of pardon.”
“I hope that Excellency will come to join a political life in the near future,” it continues.
As a convicted person, Rainsy’s name was scrubbed from the voter list in November.
National Election Committee secretary-general Tep Nytha said that as of yesterday the decision would stand.
“This pardon does not mean that [Rainsy] must be automatically re-added to the voter list.… Since list registration is closed, [he] cannot register and the candidate registration is also closed. This is according to the law, which we are enforcing,” Nytha said.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party would begin talks with the NEC only after Rainsy returned.
According to Nytha, Rainsy could be allowed to be re-listed as a voter and a candidate only if the law is amended – an implausibility, he admitted, given the narrow window before the election.
But election monitor Hang Puthea, director of the watchdog NICFEC, said it was likely that a political solution would be broached.
“NEC cancelled [Rainsy’s name] when he was considered a convict. So now that he is not, they should re-list his name,” Puthea said, adding that this final step would shield the government from continued criticism.
On Friday morning, just hours after the passing of his father, Hun Sen signed off on a sub-decree requesting a Royal pardon “for national reunification, national reconciliation and the election … to be held in accordance with democratic, multi-party principles whereby all relevant parties can participate.”
The request came amid increasing pressure from foreign governments, particularly the US, to see Rainsy return before the elections. Just last week, US lawmakers called for cuts to aid at a congressional hearing should the election not be “free and fair”.
Speaking to reporters Saturday following a closed-door meeting with US charge d’affairs, Jeff Daigle, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong stressed that the government’s decision had nothing to do with the backlash.
“I told Mr [Daigle] that all these points proved that the Cambodian People’s Party and Samdech Techo Hun Sen know very clearly how to resolve its problem, how to resolve the national unity, how to make an election democratic, free and just,” Namhong said. “There is no need for an intervention from abroad, no need for a lesson from abroad. We know how to do it by ourselves. We know how to be the owner of ourselves.
“I also asked the US government to have their vision of Cambodia based on the reality in Cambodia. Do not look at Cambodia through opposition media, do not look at Cambodia through the opposition party,” he continued.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a Friday press briefing in Washington, DC, that the US welcomed “the decision to accept the Prime Minister’s recommendation of a royal pardon for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia without incarceration”.
“We call on the Cambodian government to facilitate a safe environment for his return and allow for his meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections,” she continued, adding that while Rainsy’s return would be “a significant step in the right direction”, there was more to be done.
But if the embattled opposition head is not permitted to run, it is unclear whether the same governments that had been pushing for “free and fair” elections could consider them such.
The US embassy did not respond to questions regarding that possibility, but earlier in the day spokesman Sean McIntosh echoed Psaki’s statement calling the pardon “a significant step in the right direction for Cambodia’s democratic development”.
CNRP officials yesterday called on the Ministry of Interior to ensure the security of an estimated 40,000 supporters they expect to turn out Friday to greet Rainsy.
National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith told the Post yesterday that armed police would be deployed to the airport to ensure the safety of Rainsy, but declined to disclose the number.
“I cannot say how many police it will be, but we will have enough to control security both at the airport and in the streets he’ll travel on,” he said. “We’re not concerned about chaos – we’ll be able to keep the situation under control, no worries.”
Riot police would not be deployed because police did not consider Rainsy’s return to be a demonstration, Chantharith said, but warned CNRP supporters not to cause trouble.
“We hope Rainsy’s supporters will maintain their dignity … and not create any problems.”
Sovann said the party expected that supporters would remain calm but called on the government to “provide protection for everyone”.
According to Sovann, 20,000 supporters are set to greet Rainsy at the airport upon his return, while an additional 20,000 will meet him at a rally at Freedom Park.
The CNRP will also be requesting a meeting with the King and Queen Mother shortly after his arrival, said Sovann, in order that Rainsy can “pay respect to the late King Father”.
Son Soubert, a personal adviser to the King and president of the Human Rights Party, said he could not say whether plans had been made for Rainsy to meet with King Norodom Sihamoni.
“I cannot confirm that,” he said. “But it would be a very good thing for him to meet with the King, because he was the one who arranged the whole thing. It would be good for [Rainsy] to go and thank him for the amnesty.”
Soubert said such a meeting, if it occurred, would likely take place at the palace.
“I think if he requests an audience, the King would grant it.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF, CHHAY CHANNYDA AND VONG SOKHENG