by Guillaume Bonnet with Patrick Lee in Kuala Lumpur
Exiled Cambodian opposition party leader Sam Rainsy was blocked in Paris on Thursday and his deputy detained in Malaysia as they tried to fly home despite arrest threats from Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen.
Both Rainsy and Mu Sochua had planned to meet up with other opposition supporters to mark Cambodia’s Independence Day on Saturday.
“I am extremely shocked because the people need me in Cambodia,” Rainsy, archrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen, told journalists at Charles de Gaulle airport after an agent at the Thai Airways counter turned him away.
He had planned to travel to Thailand and from there to Cambodia to make a dramatic end to his exile in France, where he is also a citizen after his family moved to there in the 1960s.
But Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader in power since 1985, vowed not to allow Rainsy to return, saying he would be arrested on sight, and has sought support from regional neighbours to thwart the opposition’s plans.
“I will never give up,” Rainsy said as he got into a taxi to leave the Paris airport, insisting he would seek “an alternative flight to be able to leave for Thailand today.”
“Hun Sen’s days are counted,” said the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). “Democracy will be established as soon as possible; it is our determination, it is our conviction.”
Rainsy has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail in Cambodia on charges he says are politically motivated.
In September, Rainsy and several opposition officials were charged with plotting a coup, which carries a prison term of up to 30 years.
Pact not to ‘interfere’
Sochua, the CNRP’s deputy leader, was held at Kuala Lumpur airport as she tried to fly home for her leader’s return.
She had flown in from neighbouring Indonesia, where the Cambodian ambassador stormed a news conference she was giving and attempted to get the event cancelled.
Hun Sen said Sochua was stopped in Malaysia because authorities were upholding a tenet of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations not to “interfere in each other’s internal affairs.”
Earlier this week, two other Cambodian opposition activists were arrested in Malaysia as they sought to fly to Thailand.
The country’s human rights commission said Sochua and two other Cambodian activists arrested in Malaysia this week as they sought to fly to Thailand have since been released.
The two would be processed by the UN refugee agency and resettled in another country — not Malaysia or Cambodia — while Sochua is free to go where she pleases.
Dozens of opposition activists have been detained in Cambodia in recent weeks for allegedly agitating for the government to be toppled as Rainsy planned his return.
A few dozen supporters greeted Rainsy in a Charles de Gaulle terminal building, including a handful of Buddhist monks with a banner supporting the return of “Mr Rainsy to the mother country”.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha had said Wednesday that Rainsy would not be allowed to transit through the kingdom.
Hun Sen has said that arrest warrants for Rainsy were sent to neighbouring countries, and troops deployed at the Thai-Cambodian border to stop him from travelling home by land.
The CNRP was dissolved ahead of last year’s elections in Cambodia, which saw Hun Sen’s party win all seats in a process denounced by several Western governments. – AFP