Persecution in Cambodia as opposition leader promises to return from voluntary exile

Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen has ordered troops at the border with Thailand to be on high alert and led a crackdown on supporters of his former main opposition party, as its leaders plot a dramatic return to the country.

Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders living in self-imposed exile have vowed to “restore democracy” by returning to the country on 9 November. In the run-up to Saturday Cambodian authorities have jailed CNRP supporters and promised to arrest Sam Rainsy, the party leader, if he enters the country.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Mu Sochua, the deputy leader of the banned CNRP had been detained by Malaysian immigration authorities.

Earlier, Sochua told the Guardian she would be with Rainsy when he stepped onto Cambodian soil for the first time in four years. Both have arrest warrants out for them relating to charges supporters say are politically motivated.

“We will not abort our plan … to restore democracy and establish peace,” Sochua said.

Sochua, who spoke from Jakarta, had already been denied entry into Thailand at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on 20 October. The Cambodian government has told neighbouring countries not to allow Rainsy to enter Cambodia, and warned 47 airlines not to allow him or other CNRP leaders to fly to the country on their planes.

Sochua insisted she still planned to enter Cambodia from Thailand, and that CNRP leaders will be supported by Cambodian migrant workers living in Thailand when they do so.

She said: “The question should be asked to Mr Hun Sen: is he willing to kill his people? Is he calling a war? Is he willing to face an international criminal court? Is Mr Hun Sen willing to use the tanks? It’s not the people facing the army, it’s the army facing the people.”

On Monday, Cambodia’s defence ministry said troops were performing exercises with live rounds along the Thai border. At least 48 other CNRP activists have been arrested so far this year, accused of planning to overthrow the government.

Rainsy has vowed to “bring about a democratic change, meaning to put an end to the current regime, which is a brutal dictatorship.”

On Wednesday he tweeted: “I will depart from Paris on Thursday November 7. I will arrive in Bangkok on Friday November 8 to be ready to enter #Cambodia on Saturday November 9,” with a photo of his airplane ticket.

Since Rainsy’s August announcement about his return to Cambodia, CNRP supporters have been targeted by officials in the country with increasing ruthlessness. Last month a video showing Seng Sokhorn, a former CNRP commune chief, calling Rainsy “treasonous” was released by the government, sparking accusations that it was a forced confession.

Sochua said the tactic “reminds of the practise of the Khmer Rouge. We see the signs of the Khmer Rouge coming back, and this is very very worrisome.”

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, told The Guardian: “Cambodia’s slew of arrests of CNRP activists, and mass mobilisation of troops and officials at the border with Thailand, smacks of desperation.” He said the activities comprised a “propaganda ploy aimed at domestic public opinion.”

Rainsy has predicted that joyous crowds will greet him on his Cambodia return, but even in CNRP circles there are doubts that he will make it across the border. Kem Monovithya, the party’s deputy director general of public affairs, said Rainsy’s announcement was a “PR stunt”.

Kem Monovithya’s father, CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha, is reportedly under house arrest in Phnom Penh. Sochua rejected the idea that the return was a PR stunt, but said that securing his release would be a top priority once Rainsy entered Cambodia.

“Democracy is at stake,” said Sochua. “Our people deserve to be free and to take real advantage of real democracy.”