BANGKOK — Five members of Cambodia’s outlawed opposition party met with dozens of others in Kampong Speu province in December over Cambodian noodles to celebrate the CNRP’s new acting president.
Nearly a year later, on Thursday, the five from Kampong Speu were gathered in a Bangkok park, where they considered whether they would journey home on Saturday at the behest of their acting president Sam Rainsy.
Like their leader, the five are living in self-exile to avoid criminal charges stemming from their criticisms of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, or their support for the main opposition CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court two years ago this month.
Their alleged crimes include posting photos and videos of their December meeting on Facebook in which they voiced support for Rainsy.
“When we gather in Cambodia, it’s a kind of fun and to make a statement,” said Hong Theng, a provincial CNRP officer who first left Cambodia in February “because the Hun Sen government harassed us.”
“But we also feel regret because the state is too extreme, and this makes us have to run away from our home, which we love,” Theng, 53, told VOD.
Rainsy, who has lived abroad since late 2015, on Thursday said he was blocked from boarding a flight from Paris to Bangkok, from where he said he would travel on to the border with Cambodia, planning to enter the country on November 9, the nation’s Independence Day.
While a Thai Airways ticket he posted online earlier this week showed a Thursday departure from Paris and Friday morning arrival in Bangkok, his flight itinerary as of Thursday evening, which was viewable via the airlines’ website, showed a round-trip ticket from Paris to Bangkok from November 9-15.
Late Thursday, Rainsy announced that CNRP leaders’ planned return may be delayed, since a Thai Airways agent had told him the airline was ordered by top officials not to allow him to board the plan to Thailand and continue on to Cambodia.
“I would like to inform my compatriots that we didn’t change our plan or commitment to return,” Rainsy said in a six-minute video streamed on his Facebook page.
In a speech on Thursday, Hun Sen questioned Rainsy’s promise to return.
“Now, his flight leaving from Charles De Gaulle to Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok changes to the 9th. So what does it mean to you, all his supporters? Is he believable?” Hun Sen said.
“Soon, he will declare that he won’t come because Thailand bans him from entering its territory. If Thailand does so, why doesn’t he just take a direct flight to Siem Reap and then continue to Phnom Penh? Why [does he] need to come that way?” the prime minister added.
Rainsy has repeatedly broken previous promises to return, including in November 2015 when he was issued an arrest warrant for defamation during a trip abroad. He vowed to face the charges in Cambodia before delaying his return. Rainsy has not been back to the country since.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok’s Santiphap Park, where CNRP members like Theng who fled Cambodia say they pass time exercising and catching up with friends and colleagues, Rainsy’s compatriots were mixed about whether they would leave the relative safety of Thailand — where many have applied to the U.N. for political asylum — and re-enter Cambodia on Saturday in an effort to challenge Hun Sen and his ruling party with a “people-power” movement aimed at restoring the opposition.
Theng said he didn’t dare make a decision about whether he would return to Cambodia on Saturday because the charge against him, plotting an attack, carried a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
“I have not decided yet, but if I go there, I might just stay at the border” and not cross it, he said.
Theng hoped Rainsy would successfully return to Cambodia and peacefully negotiate with the government, so charges against CNRP members would be dropped and they could return home to their families.
“I want him to win over the dictatorial regime and have democracy,” he said. “I want all those people who have been suffering to be free from the suppression of the dictatorship.”
The CNRP was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2017, two months after party president Kem Sokha was arrested and charged for attempting to overthrow the government, allegations which he denies. Sokha remains under de facto house arrest in Phnom Penh. The U.N. has called his detention arbitrary.
In a statement issued Friday, the CNRP again called for the immediate release of Sokha and “all political prisoners,” and asked authorities of Cambodia and neighboring countries to allow Rainsy and “exiled CNRP colleagues free and peaceful entry” into Cambodia.
The government has branded Rainsy’s promised homecoming a coup attempt, arrested dozens of CNRP members on plotting and incitement charges in relation to their support for the party, and positioned armed forces on the country’s border in recent weeks.
Opposition member Chum Sorphoan, 46, said she hosted the CNRP gathering at her home in Kampong Speu’s Chbar Mon City in late December, about which she was later questioned by local police.
Two days before the party was dissolved in November 2017 police began surveilling her house, she said while sitting among colleagues in the Bangkok park.
Sorphoan, who heads the CNRP executive committee in Chbar Mon City, said she would be crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia on Saturday, regardless of whether Rainsy was present to march across with her.
“Even if Sam Rainsy did not come to Thailand, but appealed for us to go, we have to go. We will go with other leaders,” she said.
She said she knew that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had said his government was not likely to allow Rainsy to enter Thailand en route to Cambodia
“But if [Rainsy] announced that we have to go, I will go,” she said. “I’m ready with my mind and body.”
All five CNRP members who spoke to VOD in Bangkok were charged with plotting in late October, according to court documents seen by VOD.
Some said they were monitored by authorities in Cambodia before they fled, and believed they were being watched and photographed in Bangkok.
Hem Channy, head of the CNRP women’s committee in Phnom Sruoch district, said she first left Kampong Speu with Theng in February at 3 a.m. and entered Thailand about three hours later through a Koh Kong border checkpoint.
“I was waiting for the gate to open,” Channy, 45, recalled.
She said she left Cambodia “because the court is not fair, and I don’t trust the Hun Sen regime.”
Channy joined the CNRP in 2013, the year the party held mass street demonstrations following a disputed election, and was appointed to her role leading the district women’s committee in 2017.
Her five children, from ages 11 to 23, were living with their father, a livestock feed seller, under difficult economic conditions at home, she said.
Channy said she was determined to accompany Rainsy back to Cambodia to “demand freedom for the Cambodian people.”
“And no matter what happens to me, I will have no regrets,” she said, adding that if Rainsy walked across the border into Cambodia by foot, she would do the same.
She said she trusted that Rainsy would return on Saturday.
“On that day, I believe 100 percent that Mr. President will join with us,” Channy said. “I believe and trust in him. I dare to stand and take a bullet for him.”
According to Channy, people from her district in Kampong Speu would go to Phnom Penh on Saturday to welcome Rainsy, claiming they were not afraid.
But others were less certain about whether they would return to Cambodia on Saturday, where those with charges against them likely face arrest.
Tieng Sien, a 69-year-old member of the CNRP’s Kampong Speu provincial council, said he fled Cambodia with his wife, Duch Nou Serey, 62, first in February and then again in March. They returned to Cambodia briefly after Sien’s lawyer said he could delay court questioning and negotiate with the court to have Sien’s charges dropped.
But in early March, Sien said he was tipped off by a provincial police officer and court officer who told him that he would be arrested and should leave the country with his wife.
The couple said whether they returned to Cambodia depended on Rainsy and other CNRP members living in Bangkok.
“If everyone goes, I will go,” Sien said.
But if Rainsy was not present, party members may not return, he said.
“If there’s no Sam Rainsy, I won’t go too,” he added.
Nou Serey concurred.
“For me, if there’s no His Excellency Sam Rainsy, I also will not go,” she said, noting that she had been charged alongside Tien and other CNRP members from Kampong Speu, some who were in Bangkok and others who were in prison in Cambodia.
“The court in Cambodia is not fair,” Nou Serey said. “If I go back, they will arrest and imprison me.”