Sam Rainsy Seeking Deal Before Return

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy will not be returning to Cambodia to face a two-year jail sentence in the coming days and is hoping to instead forge a deal with the CPP to allow him to return freely, CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang told reporters on Wednesday.

After a meeting of the CNRP’s standing committee and its lawmakers at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, Mr. Chhay Eang, a close confidante of Mr. Rainsy, said the opposition leader had no immediate plans to return.

Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang speaks to reporters at the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Ma Chettra)
Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang speaks to reporters at the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Ma Chettra)

“The CNRP’s standing committee held a meeting, and the agenda of that meeting was the process of the return of Sam Rainsy and our work at the National Assembly,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.

“In short, all of the standing committee consider that the [CNRP] president must return to Cambodia but not come tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, and that he needs to select an appropriate time,” he said.

“During this period, the party will work hard to find a peaceful political solution. It means that his return will be peaceful. That’s what we agreed.”

With the National Assembly currently in session and preparing to discuss and pass a number of laws, a list that likely includes a controversial new union law, Mr. Chhay Eang also said the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers would be hard-pressed to participate given recent events.

“In terms of our National Assembly work, we will wait for the situation because—as we know if we talk about trains—the head of our train has been cut off and because the tail of the train always follows the head, the head has to be reconnected first,” he said.

“The tail has to wait…to wait and see a reasonable and appropriate political situation that guarantees the stability and protection of lawmakers, with no intimidation—then we can perform our work properly.”

CNRP lawmaker Keo Phirum, who also attended the meeting, said he could not say whether those decisions meant Mr. Rainsy would now only return if a deal is struck allowing free passage.

“We are sending a delegation to meet him tomorrow, and so any news at all we cannot talk about until the delegation of Son Chhay, Eng Chhay Eang and Yem Ponhearith comes back,” Mr. Phirum said, referring to three prominent CNRP lawmakers.

Opposition officials will not say which country Mr. Rainsy is in, saying only that he is with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha in a “friendly” Asian country.

In the South Korean city of Busan on Saturday night, Mr. Rainsy pledged to return to Cambodia as scheduled on Monday night. Yet he reneged on the plans hours before the scheduled arrival, citing fears of violence.

Mr. Rainsy’s prison sentence stems from a defamation case won by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2011 over a speech Mr. Rainsy made accusing him of helping to run the Boeng Trabek prison with his Khmer Rouge captors in the late 1970s.

The conviction was widely believed annulled by a royal pardon Mr. Rainsy received weeks before the 2013 election, until Mr. Namhong’s lawyer asked for it to be enforced on Friday. The CPP then kicked Mr. Rainsy out of the National Assembly on Monday.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rainsy said he believed that Soy Sopheap, the owner of Deum Ampil news and a longtime fixer for Prime Minister Hun Sen, was mediating talks with CNRP officials that may allow him to return to the country a free man.

Mr. Sopheap has characterized his efforts to mediate the talks as “providing ideas,” although Mr. Hun Sen has in the past been effusive in thanking him for negotiating resolutions with his political rivals.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sopheap said that he believed any possible arrangement to allow Mr. Rainsy to return may have to involve the opposition leader writing a letter to Mr. Namhong apologizing for saying he collaborated with the Khmer Rouge.

“In the future, but not now, this could be the way out. We are journalists and we have to analyze this. He could write a letter of apology to Hor Namhong. It’s up to Sam Rainsy and the politicians,” he said.

Asked whether he had directly suggested such a solution to Mr. Rainsy’s representative in the talks, Mr. Sopheap said he had mentioned it but had not pressed the issue.

“Out of generosity, we can just mention them, and it is up to them to listen or not,” he said.

Yet Mr. Sopheap said even writing such a letter may not secure Mr. Rainsy’s free return to Cambodia and called on the opposition leader to stop trying to antagonize the government while abroad.

“If individual issues keep occurring, it will be difficult. Therefore, please recognize the reality of history and who has done what for the nation. What we have today is a huge contribution from the CPP,” he said.

Mr. Rainsy could not be reached for comment about whether he would consider apologizing for his claims, which he has stood by for years and amid litigation in France and Cambodia by Mr. Namhong.

In 2006, the opposition leader returned from exile to Cambodia after writing a letter apologizing for accusing Mr. Hun Sen of ordering the 1997 grenade attacks on one of his rallies in Phnom Penh, which killed 16 people and injured scores more.

The ruling party has used Mr. Rainsy’s reticence to return and face jail to mock the CNRP president’s recent attempts to compare his opposition movement to that of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Committee for Free and Fair Elections executive director Koul Panha, however, said he believed Mr. Rainsy was doing the right thing to avoid jail, saying that his fight was at a different stage to that of Ms. Suu Kyi when she was jailed more than two decades ago.

“The problem is they are comparing Sam Rainsy to Aung San Suu Kyi. She was under house arrest. It is very different here. There is no honor when you are in jail. They humiliate you. They treat you very badly, and then show it to the public,” Mr. Panha said.

“They have already started a dialogue. They should build on it. That is the future, if they want a smooth transition. For that, they need the leaders of the political partners to have discussions.”

Mr. Panha said Mr. Rainsy was acutely aware of the brutal and temperamental nature that Mr. Hun Sen has when it comes to his political opponents.

“It’s not easy. The young generation thinks differently to mine. My generation had a lot of trauma. Even Sam Rainsy almost died in the grenade attack in 1997,” Mr. Panha said.

“It’s possible that could happen again. But the younger generation, I see it on Facebook, they do not have this fear. They say you have to challenge. They dare to challenge. Maybe we can learn from them.”

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