Former Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy addresses the media in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Kimlong Meng / NurPhoto

“This may be the last time that you see me alive, or as a free man,” Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of Cambodia’s now-dissolved main opposition party, said last week in a Facebook video post.

To restore democracy, the opposition politician said, “I have no option left but to return to Cambodia in a non-violent way.”

On November 9, Sam Rainsy and other exiled leaders of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) plan to lead thousands of Cambodians on a march across the Thai-Cambodian border to demand political change in their homeland.

Their target: Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dissolved the CNRP in 2017 and has since formed a de facto one-party state after winning nearly uncontested all of parliament’s 125 seats at 2018 elections.

The Supreme Court justified the party’s dissolution on the grounds it was plotting to overthrow Hun Sen’s government in cahoots with the United States.

All of the CNRP’s parliamentarians were dismissed from their roles, prompting many to flee into exile, as were the party’s thousands of locally elected officials. Many were banned from engaging in politics for several years.

In recent days, Hun Sen has echoed the court decision’s coup claim, saying Sam Rainsy’s promised return is a thinly veiled bid to launch a “color revolution.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ground breaking ceremony in Phnom Penh on January 14, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ly Lay

The US and European Union (EU) have responded to Cambodia’s democratic backsliding with strong words and light sanctions, though both threaten to impose wider-reaching economic penalties if the political situation does not soon improve.

Cambodia’s removal from their respective preferential trade schemes, for instance, could ruin the country’s export-geared manufacturing sector, including the crucial garment sector.

The CNRP’s challenge has revived the country’s recently somnolent but always combustible politics, a political escalation that could devolve into violence depending on how each side plays their cards in the days ahead.

Hun Sen, known for his tough rhetoric and tactics, has maintained that the CNRP’s demonstration will be barred and has asked neighboring governments to block Sam Rainsy and CNRP politicians from entering their countries.

On November 6, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said his government would not allow Sam Rainsy to transit through Thailand in a bid to return to Phnom Penh, according to agency reports. “We will not allow anti-government (parties) to use Thailand as a base,” he said, in apparent reference to the CNRP.

Underscoring the political drama, his government has closed and amassed troops along the Thai border, where in recent day soldiers have engaged in live fire exercises to deter any CNRP march.

“We are using real bullets in exercises,” Cambodia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat warned on November 4.

While Sam Rainsy and other exiled CNRP leaders have vowed to return on several previous occasions, the current plan appears to be their most committed to date, one that has put regional security agencies on guard.

Sam Rainsy’s promised return symbolically coincides with Cambodia’s Independence Day, as well as the 30th anniversary of the fall of Germany’s Berlin Wall.

“We have the right and duty to fulfill the wish and determination of the people to see positive change,” said Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice president who has taken a leading role in planning the return. “We made the promise. We have mobilized and engaged members, supporters, legislators.”

In late October, Mu Sochua was turned away from entering Thailand, from where the CNRP has said it hopes to galvanize thousands of migrant Cambodian workers to join in their cross-border protest. She told Asia Times that the CNRP is still exploring for other avenues to cross the Thai-Cambodia border.

Reuters reported on November 7 that she had been detained by authorities in Malaysia.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said that the odds of them returning “are higher than they’ve ever been, but I’d still put them at 50/50.”

Some CNRP executives, however, suspect the claim is more public relations grandstanding than actual threat, reflecting a now-palpable split between Sam Rainsy’s faction and another led by the party’s jailed co-leader Kem Sokha, who has been held since August 2017 on politicized treason charges.

Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s daughter and a CNRP official, has described the November 9 return as a “gimmick” and claimed that “there is no real plan for any senior CNRP official to return to Cambodia” on that date.

To drum up public support, Sam Rainsy published on November 3 a seven-point program outlining what the CNRP would do if it is allowed to reform and return to politics.

The program includes the party’s usual anti-corruption and reform agendas, including a specific call to ensure that “judges’ independence and integrity so that they can properly render justice.”

It also advances populist pledges, such as “return[ing] land and houses to those who have seen their properties unjustly confiscated by corrupt authorities and unscrupulous businessmen.”

Sam Rainsy, then president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto
Sam Rainsy speaks to his supporters in Phnom Penh in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

Sam Rainsy also said he would seize the “ill-gotten assets of the country’s corrupt leadership and use them to reduce the currently untenable indebtedness of the poorest segment of the population.”

Hun Sen has on several occasions publicly dared Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia, where the leader said “prison is waiting for you” in 2017. Hun Sen has even mocked his erstwhile opponent by offering to buy him an airplane ticket to return home.

But the prime minister’s mood has hardened this time, underscoring the apparent perceived seriousness of the threat.

“Don’t ever join the ‘nine-fingers’ campaign,” he recently said, referring to a sign Sam Rainsy has been using that denotes the November 9 return date. “If you dare do it, you should have one of your remaining fingers cut off.”

Since August, when the CNRP’s exiled leaders first vowed to return to Cambodia, authorities have ramped up their repression by arresting more than 50 party activists and jailing 31, according to Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group.

“The repression has thus far succeeded in depressing the opposition movement,” said Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand. “Something has got to act as a catalyst to change this situation for any resistance by the opposition to prove even partially successful.”

Sam Rainsy has several politically-motivated convictions pending against him, any one of which could be leveraged to arrest and detain him.

On September 26, a court charged in absentia other exiled CNRP leaders, namely Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Eng Chhai Eang, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, Tob Van Chan, and Ho Vann, with attempting to stage a coup, an anti-state criminal offense.

In late October, Interior Minister Sar Kheng ordered all provincial and municipal governors to remain in their jurisdictions until the annual water festival ends on November 10. They have also been ordered not to take leave or travel abroad.

Around the same time, his ministry’s spokesperson, Khieu Sopheak, publicly confirmed that the government has been using mobile phone surveillance to track CNRP activists’ movements.

“Now we know where [Sam Rainsy] is. And even if he returns on the 5th or 6th or 7th or 8th or 9th, we will know it all. Therefore, our preparation is not difficult,” he stated.

How the Cambodian people will respond to whatever happens on November 9 – either if the CNRP leaders return or not – is “a real unknown, given how long they’ve been boiled to death already by the Phnom Penh authorities,” said Sophal Ear. “They know what’s been happening but Phnom Penh’s expertise is to intimidate, use violence and force.”

A government official who requested anonymity said the CPP is also unsure about how the people will react, which perhaps explains why the government has stepped up its repression of CNRP members in recent months.

Indeed, one significant upshot of dissolving the CNRP and then rigging the 2018 general election was that the CPP can no longer rely on the ballot box to gauge its own popularity.

Whether perceptions of their own fading popularity or rising international pressure will push Hun Sen towards negotiations with the CNRP is still unclear.

“As the days progress, the chances are becoming less likely that Sam Rainsy will return to Cambodia on November 9 without some negotiated agreement with Hun Sen,” said Chambers. “But there is little incentive for Hun Sen to negotiate at all.”

According to Mu Sochua, the CNRP wants “a comprehensive plan and not piecemeal concessions” in any negotiations with the CPP.

STOCKHOLM 20171121 ***FILE***Mo Sochua politician from Cambodia. Her party CNRP has been banned and she has been deprived of her place in parliament. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT / kod 10050
Mu Sochua holds her dissolved CNRP party’s emblem in a file photo, Stockholm. Photo: AFP

She told Asia Times her party will demand the release of Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, allowances for the return of all exiled CNRP members, the CNRP’s legal restitution, restoration of the 5,007 CNRP officials elected at the 2017 commune election, and a new general election.

Some of Mu Sochua’s demands might be acceptable to some CPP officials, though almost certainly not to Hun Sen, who has spent the last two years deriding CNRP leaders as traitors and threats to national security.

Sam Rainsy no doubt believes that his planned November 9 return will sow division within the CPP, especially if some officials think conciliation might help to avoid EU and US sanctions. The exiled politician has for months asserted that some in the CPP and military would side with him over Hun Sen.

Since 2018, Hun Sen has reshaped the military, retiring veteran generals and disrupting patronage networks in order to make loyalty to the prime minister, rather than to top brass, the key to winning promotions, analysts say.

His eldest son and prospective successor, Hun Manet, was promoted to the second-highest rank within the military in late 2018, though he has since often appeared as the armed forces’ de facto leader.

Members of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) attend the party's congress in Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Members of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) attend the party’s congress in Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 19, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Many political analysts believe that the CNRP was dissolved in late 2017 because the CPP was concerned it might lose the 2018 general election.

If negotiations between the two sides are possible – still a big if in the run-up to November 9’s potentially explosive events – then much will hang on the CNRP’s demand for a prompt rerun of the 2018 general election.

The next general election must not be held until 2023, a political eternity for the CNRP to remain out in the cold. Significantly, both the EU and US have both stopped short of calling for a redo of that one-sided poll. But if new rounds of political violence erupt, neither would be expected to stand by idly.

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