Acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy will be arrested by the military upon setting foot inside Cambodia, Minister of Defense Tea Banh said Tuesday, prompting the exiled opposition chief to appeal to security forces to “turn their rifles” on their superiors in revolt.
Last week, the CNRP announced that Sam Rainsy and several other high-ranking party officials will return to Cambodia from exile on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to imprison them.
Sam Rainsy recently vowed to lead two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries home when he returns from exile to lead what he says will be a restoration of democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Late on Tuesday, Tea Banh told RFA’s Khmer Service in an interview that he had already ordered soldiers throughout Cambodia to prepare for Sam Rainsy’s return and to arrest him “upon his arrival” next month.
“We won’t allow Sam Rainsy to provoke a chaotic situation in the country,” he said, adding that “soldiers stationed at the borders will handcuff him” as soon as he attempts to enter Cambodia.
“We will take him to jail. We must protect the country. We won’t allow him to destroy it.”
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, but has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile.
In early June, he announced that he had agreed to return to the country by September, but walked that back last week, saying his announcement was intended to “mislead” Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
On Tuesday, Sam Rainsy urged the military to ignore Tea Banh’s orders and to “stand up to the regime” to rescue Cambodia’s democracy.
“I believe the military will turn their rifles toward the dictator and his group,” Sam Rainsy said.
“This is a historic chance for Cambodians to revolt against dictatorship.”
Authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha in September 2017, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, political analyst Kim Sok noted that Cambodia’s military cannot arrest Sam Rainsy because only the country’s judicial police can implement a court order, and suggested that the defense minister’s comment was meant as a show of force.
“Tea Banh wants to make it known that Hun Sen has been preparing his troops for a long time,” he said.
Tea Banh’s statement came after CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San told RFA that he does not believe Sam Rainsy will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, calling the opposition leader a “coward and a chicken,” and threatening to arrest anyone who accompanies him home.
Meanwhile, authorities in Cambodia for the first time invoked the 2017 Supreme Court ruling to arrest a former CNRP official in Kampot province, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which called for his release on Monday.
On Aug. 17, authorities detained Nuth Pich, 63, for allegedly disobeying the court decision that dissolved the CNRP after he helped organize gatherings of former party elected officials and activists for meals of Khmer noodles in April and May.
Nuth Pich had gone into hiding on May 17 after the Kampot provincial court issued an arrest warrant against him, but he came out of hiding in early August and returned home, mistakenly believing it was safe to do so, and was promptly arrested and charged with discrediting judicial decisions, incitement to commit felony decisions, and incitement to discriminate.
In Charging Nuth Pich, the court indicated that it was acting on the basis of the Supreme Court ruling that had dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party leaders from formal participation in political activity for five years.
On Monday, HRW called on Cambodian authorities to “drop all politically motivated charges” against Nuth Pich and “unconditionally release him.”
“Cambodian authorities went into contortions to find charges to bring against Nuth Pich, who merely exercised his basic rights to free speech and association,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
“This is just the latest baseless act of harassment against a former opposition party member.”
Since the start of 2019, authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning, HRW noted, calling on concerned governments to demand “the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained.”
“The Cambodian government’s crackdown on opposition parties did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the CNRP, but has only gotten worse,” Robertson said.
“The appalling silence of the EU, U.S., and other foreign donors whenever a former CNRP leader is arrested should end now.”
Speaking in response to HRW’s statement, Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin told RFA that the charges against Nuth Pich are based on law.
“Any time action is taken against former CNRP activists, HRW always claims it is politically motivated,” he said.
“However, our authorities only implement the law.”
Nuth Pich’s son Sun Theany told RFA on Wednesday that guards working for the Kampot provincial court recently allowed him to see his father for the first time since his arrest.
Sun Theany said his father’s hair had been cut short and that his health is deteriorating because of the cramped quarters he is being held in, adding that he had asked Nuth Pich’s lawyer to request bail.