Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, has been officially banned from entering the country in a move that observers say violates domestic and international laws and conventions.
The government issued a letter over the weekend ordering any attempted return to the country by Rainsy to be blocked by land, air or sea.
Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile since late last year when an arrest warrant was issued for him over a defamation ruling many thought he had been pardoned for.
The ruling party said his return would incite violence and a breakdown in public order.
The order was issued on October 18 in a letter from Sok Phal, chief of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department. It ordered officials at the country’s airports to be vigilant and report any information regarding a possible return of the exiled leader.
Tekreth Samrach, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, said the government’s experience with Rainsy’s return ahead of the 2013 election, when huge crowds greeted him at the airport, could not be repeated.
“So on behalf of the authorities that are not involved in political parties … we think that a massive group of people would go there, causing problems,” he said, adding that the government would not risk disruption of a major airport, “costing millions of dollars.”
The government has also instructed airlines not to permit Rainsy to board a place for Cambodia, to force planes to return to their ports of origin if Rainsy managed to board a flight to Cambodia, and for immigration officials to “take measures” if he managed to land in the country.
Despite thousands of people meeting Rainsy at the airport ahead of the 2013 election, there was no violence reported.
Meas Ny, an analyst, said the ruling party was worried about Rainsy’s popularity, however, he added that if Rainsy was arrested the CPP could face a backlash from his supporters.
He added that he sees “a similar pattern” to attempts in the past to dismantle opposition groups.
So Chantha, a political scientist, said the CPP was trying to end Rainsy’s political career.
“The big target of such a move is to end the political life of Rainsy, because when he stays outside [the country] … it’s difficult to do politics and this will show CNRP supporters a leader who says often that he will return but can’t make it happen,” he said.
Rainsy did not respond to emailed questions on Monday, but told local media that he did not have concrete plans to return to Cambodia.