Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy faces hurdles as he attempts to return home

Exiled opposition leader was barred from boarding a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok on Thursday afternoon.

Cambodia''s self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, who has vowed to return to his home country, leaves after being prevented from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok
Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been living in France since 2015 [Charles Platiau/Reuters]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia It appears November 9 will come and go without Cambodia‘s opposition making its promised return after leader Sam Rainsy failed to board a flight from Paris to Thailand on Thursday.

Rainsy, acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said he had a ticket to Bangkok arriving on November 8, and from there would enter Cambodia by land the following day.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, however, ordered that Rainsy not be permitted to enter the country.

“They say they have received very high-up instruction now to allow me to board,” Rainsy told reporters at Charles de Gaulle airport, claiming he was barred from boarding his Thai Airways flight.

An airline employee told the Associated Press news agency that Rainsy did not have a valid ticket.

Earlier this week, Rainsy posted a photo on social media of his ticket, along with his booking reference.

The booking, checked by Al Jazeera, appeared to show that Rainsy had reserved a flight leaving Paris November 9, not November 7.

Ear Sophal, a Cambodian-American associate professor of World Affairs and Diplomacy at Occidental College, said a third party could have changed Rainsy’s ticket after he tweeted it, or the airline may have considered his ticket invalid because he was barred from the country.

“I have no reason to doubt his true and genuine desire to return to Cambodia and I see no evidence he showed up without a ticket,” he said, adding that Rainsy and Sochua should simply “keep trying” to return.

Multiple Cambodian social media users did question why Rainsy chose to fly with state-owned Thai Airways after Chan-ocha’s statement.

Malaysia releases Mu Sochua

Meanwhile, CNRP vice president Mu Sochua was detained while entering Malaysia on Wednesday night, before eventually being released on Thursday evening.

Prime Minister Hun Sen had earlier requested that all ASEAN countries arrest CNRP leaders and deport them to Cambodia.

Sochua was previously detained in Thailand, before being deported to the US where she is also a citizen.

The CNRP was dissolved in 2017 after making significant gains in that year’s local commune elections, allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen to claim all 125 seats in Parliament in the 2018 national election.

Party president Kem Sokha remains under house arrest on treason charges.

Rainsy and Sochua both pledged to return to Cambodia on November 9, despite facing charges widely seen as politically motivated, in order to lead a peaceful uprising against the government.

In a message to Al Jazeera shortly after her release in Kuala Lumpur, Sochua said she is “stronger than before.”

‘We won’t give up’

Two other CNRP youth activists were detained in Kuala Lumpur earlier on Wednesday, and both were released alongside Sochua.

“I found the two youths in detention and we succeeded to all get out,” she said, adding that she still plans to return to Cambodia by land.

“We won’t give up.”

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said her detention was “ludicrous and unacceptable”.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights also condemned her detention and welcomed her release.

Mu Sochua
Mu Sochua, Vice President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was also detained in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday night before she was released on Thursday [Achmad Ibrahim/AP]

“We hope that this will inspire Thailand to allow Sam Rainsy into the country and all other ASEAN countries to respect people’s fundamental rights,” said Philippine legislator Teddy Baguilat.

Hun Sen deploys troops

While professing a desire to arrest Rainsy and other CNRP leaders, Hun Sen has gone to great lengths to ensure that they cannot enter the country.

He has deployed thousands of troops to the Thai border, issued arrest warrants to countries in the region, and threatened any airline that carries Rainsy to Cambodia with legal punishment.

Around 50 opposition supporters have also been arrested in Cambodia in recent months, for allegedly supporting a coup.

“If he wants to arrest him then why not let him back into the country? It’s very laughable,” said Vanna Hay, the deputy secretary-general of CNRP Overseas.

Speaking in Yangon on Thursday, Hay said he was disappointed that some ASEAN countries have interfered by attempting to block the CNRP’s return, and thanked Myanmar for letting him come.

“This is between me and Hun Sen. Not me and Myanmar government and Hun Sen. So I hope that Myanmar government will not arrest me tonight,” he said.

Hay flew to Bangkok later that day, where he planned to meet Rainsy. “If he does not go back by November 9 the people will lose hope,” he said.

But Sophal said the Cambodian people should not give up just because the “symbols” of resistance were prevented from returning.

“There are millions of people in Cambodia who hold their future in their own hands,” he said.

Yi Yeth, a 38-year-old tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, said he doesn’t expect Rainsy to arrive on November 9 any more, but he does not blame him either.

“He tried to come to Thailand, but Thai government not allowed him to enter their country. For me, even two or three months later I will still want him to come back,” he said.

Yeth said the current “one-party” government “doesn’t care about the people” and Cambodia needs a return to multi-party democracy to ensure that the government has an incentive to work for the people.

Yon Sineat reported from Phnom Penh, while Andrew Nachem reported from Bangkok.

Source: Al Jazeera