Turning his back on a public promise, opposition leader Sam Rainsy canceled his scheduled return to Cambodia on Monday night and said he would instead return “in the next few days,” refusing to guarantee that his time abroad would not stretch into weeks or months.
Mr. Rainsy, who is facing two years in prison over a 2011 defamation conviction, announced the cancellation in a late afternoon post to his Facebook page following days of speculation about whether he would turn over a new leaf in his career and return for the first time to face arrest over a seemingly political criminal case.
Promising during a speech in South Korea on Saturday to return to Cambodia as scheduled “even if I die,” the opposition leader had surprised many supporters and observers alike with his display of pluckiness in the face of arrest.
Yet about seven hours before the scheduled arrival of his flight from Seoul, Mr. Rainsy issued an announcement canceling his return.
“I am not arriving at Phnom Penh International Airport tonight at 22:20 as originally scheduled, but will be back in Cambodia in the next few days,” Mr. Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page.
Mr. Rainsy said the decision to cancel his immediate plans to return came after “consulting with colleagues in Cambodia and a number of international pro-democracy organizations.”
He said the advice was that “I should arrive in Phnom Penh in broad daylight and that I should also leave some time for diplomatic intervention to materialize with the objective of reaching a peaceful solution to the recent escalation of violence in Cambodia.”
Speaking by telephone from Seoul, Mr. Rainsy said he canceled his return after a lawmaker called to warn of impending violence that he believed could ultimately lead the government to stall the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national elections.
“On my way to the airport in Incheon, near Seoul, I received a call from Eng Chhay Eang, who took part in a meeting attended by all CNRP members of parliament currently in Cambodia, and they made a unanimous request to me to delay my return,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“They were concerned about the risk of violence, as they had received information about what might happen, as [Prime Minister] Hun Sen issued a call for CPP supporters to meet any actions by CNRP supporters,” he said.
“The ruling party wants to delay the election process, and to delay the election process, there must be incidents and escalating violence, which would give them the pretext they need to dismantle the CNRP, or to delay the election process,” he added.
“We cannot give any pretext to the CPP or especially Hun Sen to delay the election process. We have to be clear in this objective. The rest is secondary.”
Mr. Rainsy reiterated that he planned to return in the coming days, but refused to guarantee that his time abroad would not go on longer—as it has in similar cases over the past two decades.
“We will see,” Mr. Rainsy said. “As long as there is a risk of violence, and an escalation of violence, we have to give it time to cool down. Hun Sen seems to be in a really extreme mood, with the panic and anger that makes him really lose his reason.”
CNRP lawmaker Keo Phirum confirmed that opposition lawmakers had come together to ask Mr. Rainsy not to return on Monday night, afraid that the ruling CPP might again deploy the plainclothes thugs who beat and badly injured two opposition lawmakers late last month outside the National Assembly.
“We were concerned about his safety when he was returning late at nighttime and we were worried about supporters who might get involved when it is so dark and could get out of control,” Mr. Phirum said. “He knows he will be jailed when he comes, but he was just worried about safety and [maintaining] nonviolence.”
Committee for Free and Fair Elections director Koul Panha said he believed Mr. Rainsy was hoping to negotiate a solution with the CPP before he returned, but that the opposition leader risked looking dishonest.
“He’s hoping for some discussions between the CNRP and the CPP government, and this may create space for that and decrease confrontation,” Mr. Panha said. “He promised that he’s coming back, so we will see how he explains this, but it may create space for negotiations.”
Yet CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said no negotiations between the CNRP and Mr. Hun Sen could take place without Mr. Rainsy in Cambodia, noting that Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had never feared imprisonment.
“It’s impossible, he has to be in jail first before we can negotiate,” Mr. Eysan said, adding that Mr. Rainsy’s political detente with Mr. Hun Sen would not help him. “The culture of dialogue cannot overlap with the law.
“In simple terms, he’s a coward. He can’t take pride in himself as an equal to Aung San Suu Kyi. If he wants to be like her, he should be in prison for 20 years,” he said.
“His actions have caused him to lose face,” he added. “It shows clearly how the opposition in Cambodia is different from the opposition in Myanmar.”
Mr. Rainsy’s two-year prison term stems from a 2008 defamation complaint filed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who was angered by comments Mr. Rainsy made in a speech accusing him of cooperating with his Khmer Rouge captors during the 1970s.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the opposition leader guilty of the charges in 2011, but his conviction was presumed to have been expunged as part of a royal pardon Mr. Rainsy received in July 2013, which paved the way for his return from exile before the national election later that month.
Yet the 2011 decision ordering his arrest was ordered enforced by the court last Friday, following a request filed by Mr. Namhong’s lawyer. The complaint came during a time of increased tensions, with Mr. Hun Sen threatening the day before to take legal action against Mr. Rainsy over separate claims he made that the CPP planned to cancel coming elections.
Kem Ley, a political commentator and founder of the Khmer for Khmer political advocacy group, said Mr. Rainsy’s delayed return reflected poorly on the opposition leader.
“He sticks to his habits. He never is responsible for his words. For leaders, when we say things, we have to stick to them. Even if they arrest, torture or kill us, we have to stick to our word,” Mr. Ley said.
“If the government wants to fight, we have to fight back. I have concerns about him taking time to negotiate with the CPP now. Sam Rainsy will sacrifice something. Usually Hun Sen introduces high tension, and then takes some benefits from his party.”
Mr. Rainsy was also ousted from the National Assembly and stripped of his protections as a lawmaker earlier on Monday, following a morning meeting of the Assembly’s standing committee to discuss the planned arrest of the CNRP president.
“His Excellency Sam Rainsy has fully lost all rights, prerogatives and membership of the National Assembly for the constituency of Kompong Cham province in the fifth mandate,” a statement released by National Assembly President Heng Samrin said.
The decision to strip Mr. Rainsy of his position, and thus his parliamentary immunity, was defended by Assembly spokesman and CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who said that the opposition leader had lost his position due to the criminal conviction handed down in 2011.
“If you look at the rules of the statute on lawmakers, Article 14 says that all lawmakers or members of parliament who have a verdict that is effective and [are] sentenced to prison, they lose all their rights,” Mr. Vun said.
However, Mr. Chhay Eang, the CNRP lawmaker, asked why the National Election Committee (NEC) had let Mr. Rainsy become a lawmaker in August 2014 if he was a convict.
“I request the National Assembly clarify: If Sam Rainsy was convicted by a court verdict in 2013, why did the high institutions of state, that is the NEC, the National Assembly, the Royal Palace, help this convicted person become a lawmaker?” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
“We need to think about this: If he was a convicted, he could not become a lawmaker,” he added.
In a statement released after Mr. Rainsy’s removal, the U.S. Embassy called for his reinstatement to the National Assembly and for the government to allow him to return to Cambodia unimpeded.
“We are deeply concerned by today’s removal of…Sam Rainsy from the National Assembly in a unilateral move by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. We call on the National Assembly to reinstate him immediately and to restore his parliamentary immunity,” the statement said.
“We also call on the government to revoke the arrest warrant issued against Rainsy on seven-year-old defamation charges and to allow him and other opposition Parliamentarians to return to Cambodia without fear of arrest or persecution,” it continued.
“These developments are harmful to Cambodian democracy and contrary to the wishes of the Cambodian people.”
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