PHNOM PENH - Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, says he will return to the country before the hotly-contested general election, scheduled for July 28. With an 11-year jail term hanging over his head, it is far from clear what will happen to Rainsy if and when he does come back.
Sam Rainsy’s announcement during the weekend that he will return to Cambodia will doubtless thrill supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the coalition of key opposition parties that combined to contest the election.
It is also a problem for the long-serving, authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as it comes at a time when Cambodia’s political situation is coming under greater scrutiny. On Tuesday, the United States will hold a Congressional hearing on Cambodia’s constrained political landscape.
The exiled Sam Rainsy has said on previous occasions that he would return, but then did not. Political analyst Chea Vannath believes this time is different.
“It seems like this time it is more than a bluff - he used to say that he would come back, but he never did. But this time it is different circumstances so the likelihood is that he might really come back.”
Among the dynamics she identifies are the increasing numbers of young voters who feel an affinity for the opposition, and optimism the CNRP will do well in the ballot. International pressure helps too.
Rainsy left Cambodia in 2009 before two court cases, both of which related to the country’s contentious, ill-defined border with Vietnam.
The courts jailed Rainsy for two years for uprooting a temporary border marker, and a further nine years for disinformation after he showed off a map whose borders, the government said, were wrong.
The jail sentence was widely seen as a clumsy attempt to use the courts to hobble Hun Sen’s most trenchant and effective political opponent.
Rainsy was also stripped of his parliamentary seat and has been banned from running in the election.
Rainsy said this weekend that his return would test the government’s claim the election would be free and fair.
The government maintains Rainsy is welcome to come back. But government spokesman Phay Siphan said Monday he expected the courts would carry out their responsibility - in short, that Rainsy would be arrested and be compelled to serve time in prison.
But arresting the leader of the opposition would tarnish Cambodia’s international image and embarrass some of the donors who provide large sums each year.
Chea Vannath says jailing Rainsy would also risk turning him into a martyr. She believes a face-saving deal can be struck, one that Cambodia's king, who is a constitutional monarch, could help to bring about.
She points out the king’s late father mediated solutions to political problems when he was on the throne in the 1990s.
“It [would] be possible if the compromise that: from the airport, go to jail. And after that, then compromise somewhere.”
That, she says, would prove a mutually beneficial solution - even if it involved Rainsy spending only a few hours in prison. Some sort of penalty needs to be paid, after which a royal pardon could in theory be employed.
“That is a possibility. And also I give more importance to the role of the king rather than the international community, because the prime minister is quite irritated if somebody said that he does something because of the international pressure - he feels that Cambodia is a sovereign country, not under pressure of any foreign country. So the king is much, much more appropriate than the international community.”
The opposition is optimistic Rainsy will return before voting day and that his presence will boost their chances. But if he changes his mind, Chea Vannath says, many of his supporters will be disillusioned and 2013 could mark the end of a lengthy political career.