Sam Rainsy, the main opposition leader, sought outside help to return to the country this week. But the government has so far shown no willingness to allow it, and observers said the move could signal concern for his political future.
Sam Rainsy is facing criminal charges for publishing a map alleging Vietnamese encroachment on his party's website and a two-year jail term for uprooting markers along the Vietnamese border last year, which the court said was an attempt to incite racial hatred.
“We wish to see a political compromise,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, who said Sam Rainsy's appeal marked “concern” for his party's political bids in commune elections in 2012 and national elections in 2013.
Such compromise would have to come from “the participation of a third party,” he said.
Sam Rainsy, who is currently in the UK, is expected to meet a number of foreign lawmakers in a bid to resolve the charges against him ahead of the elections.
In an open letter on Monday to the Interparliamentary Union, the European Commission and the parliaments of France and Italy, Sam Rainsy called for “solidarity” to “pressure the authorities of Cambodia” to allow him to return as a lawmaker. He cited “persecution” from the ruling party, which he called “totalitarian” in its governance.
Reached by phone in the UK, Sam Rainsy said he was confident his European counterparts would “intervene for the respect of democratic principals.”
However, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Sam Rainsy had made a “grave mistake” in seeking international pressure against the government. It was the courts that had found him guilty, not the administration, he said.
“Cambodia is not the slave of anyone,” he said. “Cambodia is an independent country.”
The president of the ruling party CPP and president of Senate Chea Sim last week denied to intervene to restore the parliamentarian immunity of Sam Rainsy as the opposition party requested him.
Ngoun Nhel, second vice president of the National Assembly, said the appeal signaled a “hopelessness in his politics” and suggested Sam Rainsy was losing the ear of US leaders.
“I [recently] met with leaders of Congress,” he said. “They said he suggested to them to do this or that, but they did not follow.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen this week said in public remarks he would not consider intervening on behalf of Sam Rainsy, even if his political opponent requested it.
For his part, Sam Rainsy, whose party holds 26 National Assembly seats, said the court cases against him were motivated by politics and would require a political solution.
In October, he said, he plans to take his message to the annual Interparliamentarian Union meeting in Switzerland and to a meeting of EU parliamentarians in Helsinki.
“I will also go to Canada and to the United States to meet with lawmakers and senators,” he said. “I expect there will be a movement of the lawmakers from these two countries.”