By David Whitehouse -February 7, 2020
Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy told everyone that he would be back in Cambodia for independence day celebrations on November 9. He never made it, and is still in exile in Paris. Game, set and match to Prime Minister Hun Sen?
Some media reports at the time suggested that the failure to return could mean the end of Sam Rainsy’s political career. Other journalists have accused him of a lack of courage – though without suggesting any alternative opposition strategy.
Opinion polls are taboo in Cambodia, so it’s hard to measure how the attempted return affected the popularity of Sam Rainsy. If his Facebook page is any guide, the episode has not dimmed his standing in Cambodia. His recent video on Facebook in which he challenged Hun Sen to put him on trial for treason in place of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha has been viewed well over a million times: bear in mind that Cambodia has a population of 15 million and that many have no Internet access.
Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy were the joint founders of the CNRP in 2012. Sam Rainsy stood down as leader in 2017, hoping to avoid his list of convictions for various offences including libel being used as grounds to justify the dissolution of the party. So Hun Sen simply arrested Kem Sokha instead for treason, dissolved the CNRP, then cast aside to seek evidence for the charge. This “evidence” largely consists of an unremarkable speech made by Kem Sokha in Australia in 2013.
This is worth repeating if you are new to the story: an exiled dissident who has spent most of the last 15 years in Paris, who has accumulated a stack of in absentia libel convictions in Cambodia’s courts, and who demands to be put on trial for the treason charge now faced by his deputy as party leader until 2017, is not facing trial because . . . the government is too scared to do it.