Cambodia holds its breath as opposition chief vows return on independence day

MANILA, Philippines – A sense of uncertainty looms over Cambodia on the eve of its independence day as it waits to see if its most prominent opposition leader will be able to return to the county after years of self-imposed exile.

Sam Rainsy, co-founder of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), earlier announced he was ready to risk his life and freedom to return home on Cambodia's Independence Day on Saturday, November 9, to challenge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's more than 3-decade rule.

"For those of you who don't know me, this may be the first time and the last time that you see me alive as a free man. For those of you who know me, this may just be the last time you see me as a free man.... I am prepared to sacrifice my freedom – and even my life – to give democracy a chance, to help ensure freedom for my unfortunate people," Rainsy said last October 31 in a video recorded from his home in Paris where he resided for years.

Rainsy intended to lead a popular peaceful uprising against Hun Sen, much like the Philippines' People Power revolution which saw the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

Rainsy planned to fly from Paris to Thailand where he would cross into Cambodia through the countries' borders at the Poipet checkpoint in Thailand’s Aranya Pratet township. Rainsy on Thursday night, November 7, was prevented from boarding his flight on Thai Airways but vowed to continue with his plan to return.

If Rainsy manages to step foot into Cambodia, he will do so after 4 years of exile, facing troops who have been ordered to use "any means necessary" to suppress the country’s opposition. (READ: Cambodia launches online disinformation campaign to repress opposition groups)

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. #SamRainsy — Rainsy Sam (@RainsySam) November 6, 2019

Tipping point

Cambodian opposition member Mardi Seng said that with or without Rainsy, Cambodians are ready to fight Hun Sen's attempts to shrink democratic and civil space.

Hun Sen has managed to wipe out most of the opposition in with Cambodia with CNRP posing a threat to his power since the 2013 elections.

The CNRP was dissolved in the lead-up to heavily criticized 2017 elections in Cambodia, which Hun Sen's party swept, turning the country into a one-party state.

"The public sentiment is very very positive for the opposition because in the last 3 or 4 years, people are so sick and tired of some of the negative aspects of changes that have been going on in Cambodia," Seng told Rappler in an interview on Friday, November 8.

Aside from an eroding democacy, Seng said Cambodians were also frustrated with Hun Sen's position towards China, which has seen an influx of Chinese investments to the Southeast Asian country. This, he added, took shape in land being sold off and Cambodians forced to leave their homes and families to find work abroad.

It's a reality faced by many of its citizens with 35% of Cambodians are mired in poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

"Sam Rainsy is only one person. He is only a catalyst to push for change. But the people, the environment, the public sentiment – they are ready.... Whether Sam Rainsy is physically on the ground in Cambodia on November 9 or not, the chance is very high that change will take place," Seng said.

"People Power will take place," he added.

Nothing has changed in my travel plans. I am preparing to fly to Bangkok from Paris in the coming hours. Reports to the contrary are #FakeNews. #SamRainsy #Cambodia #Thailand — Rainsy Sam (@RainsySam) November 7, 2019

ASEAN roadblock

But a day before Cambodia's independence day Rainsy has seen major roadblocks to his risky plan. Hun Sen, for one, has sent arrest warrants for Rainsy to all 10 Southeast Asian countries and warned airlines not to allow Rainsy and other opposition members to fly to Cambodia.

CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua and two other opposition members were also detained by immigration authorities in Malaysia on Thursday, though they have been released and allowed to stay in Malaysia for 5 days as of Thursday night.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha earlier said it is unlikely Rainsy will be able to cross from Thailand into Cambodia as he cited the ASEAN commitment to non-interference in one another's internal affairs – a move widely slammed by human rights experts in the region.

Along with Thailand, Malaysia has said it was "not interested in the internal affairs of any country.”

My request to you to allow me safe passage through your country . . . is based on my responsibility to those supporters who have suffered so much, and to all Cambodians, who deserve a chance at a democratic debate over the future of their society. #SamRainsy #Cambodia — Rainsy Sam (@RainsySam) November 6, 2019

"If the ASEAN is going to implement non-interference, let's apply that across the board – not just selective application.... Not just for their own benefit or the benefit of the strongman like Hun Sen," Seng said.

He added, "What the Thai prime minister did, it appeared [like a] 'If you scratch my back, I scratch your back' type of deal and that is not healthy for ASEAN countries."

Lito Arlegue, executive director of regional democratic alliance Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, echoed this, saying ASEAN nations should not backtrack on gains made in human rights and democracy over the years.

"They adopted the ASEAN charter. The principles of democracy and human rights are there so if they really want to maintain their credibility and centrality in the ASEAN region, I think it's very important for ASEAN countries to somehow really put their money where their mouth is," Arlegue told Rappler.

HUN SEN. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has in recent weeks turned up the rhetoric against his government's critics. File photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

HUN SEN. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has in recent weeks turned up the rhetoric against his government's critics.

File photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

For Malaysian legislator and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairman Charles Santiago, ASEAN members instead had the responsibility "to ensure opposition voices in Cambodia are free to exercise their human rights without fear of reprisals."

"No one should fool themselves: Cambodia is now nothing but a fully-fledged dictatorship – nothing in the current functioning of the country remains democratic," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, International Institute for Strategic Studies Southeast Asia research fellow Aaron Connelly told Rappler that ASEAN countries' willingness to limit CNRP officials’ access may also lead to  consquences beyond Cambodia's borders as he pointed out "the already limited political space available to opposition groups throughout Southeast Asia." 

'Our father, our leader'

A day before Cambodia's independence day, Seng said Rainsy was making "every attempt" to return to Asia.

In a live Facebook video recorded after attempting to fly to Thailand on Thursday night, Rainsy addressed the Cambodian people to whom he vowed he would continue his plan to return home.

"Sam Rainsy himself said that on November 9 there is not going to be one Sam Rainsy – there's going to be 2, 3, 4 million Sam Rainsy's because everyone that is concerned about social justice, concerned about fairness, about equality – they are Sam Rainsy," Seng said.

"Am I nervous? Yes. But do I have hope? Yes, definitely. November 9 is only the beginning," Seng added. 

For the millions who watched Rainsy's video a day since it was posted, the hope lives on. 

"Good luck my leader.... we are with you from our hearts," viewers said.

"Good luck, papa," said another. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/ 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at