Former senior opposition members said they will return to Cambodia on January 4, 2021, to attend trial hearings for alleged crimes involving them, the second attempt to enter the country after a failed effort in November 2019.
Former Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders issued a statement on Tuesday announcing their return on January 4. The short statement said that all party members who had been summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court would return, led by former party deputy president Mu Sochua.
On Tuesday, Sochua confirmed the plan to return and said exiled party members wanted to face trial and defend themselves in court.
“Yes, I can confirm that it is a real statement,” she said via email. “Those with travel documents and with a court summon will return. We must return and be given the chance and the right to return for a fair trial.”
Senior members of the CNRP are facing multiple charges against them, related to another, but unsuccessful, attempt to return to Cambodia in 2019. Then, the government had prevented neighboring countries from allowing them to board a flight to Cambodia and revoked at least 12 passports belonging to these leaders.
The nine senior leaders face “attack” charges at a December 15 hearing and 13 of them face “incitement” and “plotting” charges at a separate trial that will be held on January 14 and March 4 next year.
Sochua said the dissolved party was not going to negotiate with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and should be allowed to return because they had been summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
“We are returning and we are aware of the possibility of arrest, detention, etc.,” she said, adding she was prepared to face arrest.
Interior Ministry Spokesperson Khieu Sopheak welcomed the intention of former opposition leaders to return back to Cambodia, noting that police forces were prepared to carry out arrest warrants against them.
“Whether we will arrest or not to arrest them depends on whether they dare to come back to Cambodia,” Sopheak said.
Sok Eysan, spokesperson for the CPP, said the announcement was only an attempt to galvanize some CNRP supporters inside and outside the country, but that CNRP leaders would not dare enter Cambodia.
“Some those leaders have been convicted and the court has issued arrest warrants [against them]. So, if they enter Cambodia, the police will implement the court warrants and bring them to jail,” he said.
Eysan also warned people who supported the opposition ‘rebel group’ would face legal repercussions.
At least 130 people were arrested in the lead up to Sam Rainsy’s return in 2019, many of whom were released on bail. A number of these former CNRP officials and supporters are now facing trial next year alongside the senior leadership.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said, in their attempt to return, former opposition leaders were campaigning to make it apparent to the international community that the CPP government was continuing to restrict fundamental freedoms and rights.
“They want to show the international community that the opposition remains pressured by ruling CPP,” he said.
He said the former leaders would be arrested on arrival in order to limit their influence on returning to Cambodia.
Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, was skeptical of the opposition’s attempt to return in January.
“We have seen many times that [they have failed] and it is just a political strategy in order to put pressure,” he said.
He said the announcement would cause the CPP to likely crackdown, intimidate and imprison people supportive of the opposition.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, while speaking at a Bar Association of Kingdom of Cambodia event last week, rejected any suggestions that he would negotiate with leaders of the dissolved CNRP.
“I send a message that there is no political negotiation, the court process remains to continue,” he said.