In a different era, when the Cambodian People’s Party’s rule seemed inviolable, Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote to the King seeking a pardon for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to allow him to return to Cambodia, after four years abroad and a week before the national election.
The decision, made in June 2013, seemed to make some sense. After years hiding abroad to avoid prison here, Rainsy had developed a damaged reputation – at best, as skittish, and at worst, cowardly – and the CPP’s inevitable election victory would appear more legitimate with the opposition leader around.
Yet if Hun Sen hoped Rainsy’s return would cause little more than a splash, he was wrong. Throngs of supporters lined the streets to welcome him, and after a rapid-fire national tour, his opposition party almost doubled its parliamentary representation to come within seven seats of an election victory.
For the first time since the 1990s, the idea of life after Hun Sen no longer seemed far-fetched – and the lesson was not lost on the premier, according to Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division and one of Hun Sen’s biggest critics over the years.
“He thinks he made a mistake in allowing Sam Rainsy back,” Adams said in an interview with Radio Free Asia in December. “As we saw when Sam Rainsy returned, hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets and it provided a lot of energy and excitement for the campaign.”
Any legitimacy conferred by Rainsy’s presence was lost twice over as the CNRP leader then led months of protests against the election results. “Hun Sen, I think, is determined not to make that mistake again,” Adams said.
With the commune elections now less than two weeks away, Rainsy is once again in Paris – this time having been officially banished from returning to Cambodia after fleeing a court case – and the government has indeed made it clear it does not want him stumping for his party this time.
Having handed the leadership of the CNRP over to his former deputy, Kem Sokha, and with airlines banned from flying him to Cambodia, Rainsy has now been properly exiled.
“At this time, he has no right to come back,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday. “We want stability and peace during the elections. It’s the government’s right to uphold stability during the elections . . . We’re not scared of him. He’s scared of us. That’s why he ran away.”
Still, whether the banishment of Rainsy could harm the CNRP’s chances in any tangible way in the elections on June 4 remains up for debate.
According to Yoeung Sotheara, a legal and monitoring officer with elections group Comfrel, though many in the opposition may be ruing the absence of Rainsy’s charisma on the campaign trail, the party has for the last five years said it is moving beyond personalist politics.
“The interesting question is whether supporters of the opposition support the spirit of change, regardless of who is the leader of the opposition. If it is true that they do, they will still come to support the opposition,” Sotheara said.
“This is the interesting question: Will they still come? I think that people who support the opposition party now care less about who is the opposition leader. They care only about change. These are people who want change in society.”
Sotheara said that the selection of Sokha as its new leader earlier this year would likely prevent the CNRP from making any claims that Rainsy’s absence harmed turnout.
However, Rainsy himself said in an email the fact the government had ordered international airlines to ban him from returning home spoke volumes about what he called its “irrational and shameful panic when it comes to my presence and my potential role in Cambodian politics, especially at election times”.
“Any election under such circumstances can be labelled anything but fair with a level playing field. This violation of basic democratic principles due to a lack of courage and sportsmanship is seriously eroding the Hun Sen government’s legitimacy,” he said.
Rainsy said that he would be back in Cambodia “within hours” of any lifting of the ban. For some supporters, though, his absence might only stoke further anger with the government come voting day, according to Moeun Tola, head of rights group Central.
“It’s not like a couple of years ago. People are more knowledgeable. They know Sam Rainsy still aligns himself with the CNRP, and people think if the CNRP wins the elections, Sam Rainsy might come back. It’s pushing people,” Tola said.
“If he were here, his presence would help to inspire people’s sentiments, but when most people talk about the CNRP, they are still talking about Sam Rainsy,” he said.
According to Council of Ministers spokesman Siphan, however, the government had moved on from the days when it cared about Rainsy.
“He no longer has the right to stand or go to vote, so why do you care?” Siphan said. “We don’t care about him. He was a troublemaker. He caused trouble for our community.”
“What else do you have for me?” he asked.