Waiting for Rainsy: Despite No-Show, Supporters in Thailand Trust He Will Return

18 min read
Cambodian migrant worker Sa Phay’s rented room in Rangsit, Thailand, on November 11, 2019 (Matt Surrusco/VOD)

In Bangkok on Saturday, an exiled CNRP activist from Battambang province said her bags were packed and she was ready to head to the Cambodia-Thailand border.

In Sa Kaeo province about 60 km from Poipet the next day, three Cambodian-Americans said they were doing some sightseeing and were willing to wait for acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy in order to walk with him and fellow Cambodians across the border in a patriotic drive for democracy.

On Monday, some Cambodian migrant workers, who had been closer to the border over the weekend, said they had pulled away from the Poipet crossing — some going as far back as Bangkok — but were prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods in support of Rainsy for a while longer. They said he could bring political change to Cambodia.

Senior leaders of the outlawed opposition CNRP since August vowed to return to Cambodia last Saturday with thousands of Cambodian migrant workers, diaspora Cambodians and exiled CNRP members in their wings in an effort to push Prime Minister Hun Sen from power by popular demand.

But on November 9, Rainsy, a CNRP co-founder who has lived abroad since late 2015 to avoid criminal convictions which he calls political, failed to materialize in Cambodia.

He was unable to board a flight from Paris to Bangkok on Thursday, and instead landed in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, where he has held meetings with Malaysian parliamentarians and the country’s foreign affairs minister.

“Contrary to accusations that have been raised against us by the Cambodian government, we are not criminals. We are democrats. We are freedom fighters,” Rainsy told reporters during a press conference outside the Malaysian Parliament on Tuesday.

Despite CNRP leaders so far being blocked from entering Thailand en route to Cambodia, Rainsy said they would find another way to get to Cambodia.

“I will be staying in the region because the situation can change very quickly. And I will go back in Cambodia when there’s a material, physical possibility to do so with my colleagues,” he said, while flanked by CNRP vice presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang.

While CNRP stalwarts — from migrant workers to senior party leaders — say they trust Rainsy will make his entrance into Cambodia in due time, some political analysts have said his promised homecoming was unlikely. A party spokeswoman, who is the daughter of party president Kem Sokha, called Rainsy’s return campaign a “PR stunt.”

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday eased some of Sokha’s judicial restrictions, but he is still not allowed to leave Cambodia or engage in political activities after he was charged with attempting to overthrow the government two years ago. He denies the allegations and has still has not faced trial.

CNRP supporters in Thailand said since Friday that they were remaining at the ready to march across the border into Cambodia if and when party leaders give the go-ahead. But some say that won’t happen unless Rainsy arrives in Thailand to lead them.

Hay Vanna, deputy secretary-general of the CNRP-Overseas, on Saturday told VOD that CNRP supporters would not cross the border into Cambodia without Rainsy.

“Our leader will not allow that to happen because it might hurt us, because [with] no Sam Rainsy, we don’t have enough power to cross,” Vanna said. “They will not allow it. The leader will not say they can go.”

But at least a few migrant workers gave up waiting for Rainsy on the Thai side of the border. Instead they opted to cross and stay with family members in Cambodia, said Sa Phay, a leader of a group of more than 100 construction workers who originally intended to cross with the politician last Saturday.

“Our group had a plan to go to the border on November 9, and our group learned that Mr. President would not come on that day so we postponed. But some of our group already went to the border and entered Cambodian territory,” Phay, 30, said on Monday, sitting on the blue-tiled floor of his friend’s rented room in the Thai town of Rangsit, 40 km outside Bangkok.

“I want to have change. If we have change, we’re going to have work to do in our country,” said Phay, who is from Battambang province and moved to Thailand about five years ago.

“I also want to see Cambodia have respect for human rights and democracy like other countries,” he added.

‘I Don’t Think They Were Workers’

The workers’ group led by Phay was one of dozens of groups of Cambodian migrant workers, ranging in size from about 40 to over 100, mostly from the construction, garment and fishing sectors who pledged to join Rainsy’s return, he said.

On November 6, Phay said he attended a meeting with about 50 other worker representatives in Bangkok, after moving locations twice due to concerns about their security.

At the first place, they spotted Thai authorities and did not enter. At the second site, a few Cambodians wearing plainclothes who they didn’t recognize questioned the workers.

The men didn’t mention the CNRP or Rainsy specifically, but asked about their meeting and if they planned to go to the border on November 9.

“Based on my judgement, I don’t think they were workers,” Phay said, adding that they looked too clean and too white-collar to be migrants.

“We suspect that they were sent to join our group so that they can know our plan to go and welcome Mr. President,” according to Phay.

More than a dozen CNRP supporters in Thailand since last Thursday told VOD that they believed they were being monitored by strangers. Some said their observers appeared to be Thai or Cambodian authorities, but many said they could not be sure who was watching and photographing them when they went out in public.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun on Wednesday said the two countries’ police forces cooperated regularly on regional security and fighting cross-border crime.

Kim Khoeun did not comment when asked specifically about Cambodian authorities monitoring CNRP supporters in Thailand, but said all states across the world generally have their agents in other countries.

“Sending spies happens between each and every country. But in this case, I cannot tell you,” he said. “It is the secret of the authorities.”

If the outlawed CNRP conducted political activities, the Thai authorities would not agree, the spokesman said.

“We go to their country to work and earn income, and end up conducting messy political activities in their country, and they will surveil,” Kim Khoeun said, referring to Cambodian migrants working in Thailand.

It is under the Thais’ authority, he added.

Interior Ministry spokesman Phat Sophanith said in a message that to his knowledge, other than Cambodian embassy staff and its police and military attaches, “there is no other officers entitled to operate in Thailand or other countries.”

Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said in a message on Wednesday that Thailand had “good relations” with neighboring states, including Cambodia.

“As a matter of principle, Thailand will not allow any individual or group of individuals to enter the Kingdom to conduct any activity that would create unrest or any act deemed as undermining another country,” she said, reiterating earlier statements by Thai officials.

She declined to comment on VOD’s questions regarding CNRP supporters’ claims of authorities monitoring them in Thailand.

Than Sadeung, an electronics factory worker in Samut Prakan, about 30 km from Bangkok, said he and about 400 workers in his area wanted to return to Cambodia with Rainsy.

But after waiting near the border on Saturday, by Sunday morning, Sadeung and three others from his group of about 30 people moved back from the border to Aranyaprathet district, less than 10 km away, since they were worried about their safety.

Military police and police armed with assault rifles block the international border checkpoint in Poipet, Banteay Meanchey province on November 9, 2019. (Licadho)
Military police and police armed with assault rifles block the international border checkpoint in Poipet, Banteay Meanchey province on November 9, 2019. (Licadho)

“There are some government forces who keep hiding at the Rong Kluea Market to follow my activities so we have to split up,” Sadeung said, referring to a market just on the Thai side of the border.

He said the larger group divided up into smaller groups of between five and 20 people and waited in different areas for new information about Rainsy’s arrival.

“They took photos of the place where I’m staying,” Sadeung said. “Based on what I observed, they seem to be some Cambodian undercover agents and also some ordinary people.”

He said he would continue waiting for Rainsy for another few days and if there was no new information, he would return to Bangkok and continue to wait there. He added that some workers might return to look for jobs if there was no update on Rainsy’s arrival.

“Some workers sacrificed their jobs and money, and they want to return back with Mr. President Sam Rainsy for change,” said Sadeung, who has worked in Thailand for eight years.

“They abandoned their work. They love change. They don’t want the same leadership [in Cambodia]. They are worried about the loss of EBA,” he said, referring to the E.U.’s review of Cambodia’s human rights compliance under the Everything But Arms preferential trade agreement.

Workers believed that Rainsy could “change the dictatorship of Hun Sen,” he added.

A mechanic named Pech, 37, from Kampong Cham province, who did not provide his full name due to concerns for his safety, said he has lived in Thailand since 2012, and also wanted regime change.

Some migrant workers had gone back to work and some traveled to Bangkok to wait for new information from CNRP leaders, Pech told VOD on Monday.

While he had requested a week of work leave in order to accompany Rainsy, Pech said if there was no information in the coming days, he would go back to work.

“We will return back to our work since our personal income is less and less,” he said.

Still, he added, workers were “willing to experience difficulties in order to have change for Cambodia and for the happiness of the people.”

CNRP supporter Son Vichhay, 23, from Takeo, said he worked in an herbal supplements factory and had been migrating back and forth from Thailand since he was about 15 years old.

While his whole family supported the ruling CPP, he was resolute in his support for the CNRP and for Rainsy, even after cousins stopped talking to him over political differences.

“I’m actually the younger generation and I’ve seen the difficult situation. And it would be even more difficult for the next generation if the same regime exists,” Vichhay said.

Despite unfulfilled promises to return to Cambodia in the past, migrant workers supported Rainsy and would stand by him, he said.

“I still believe and support him even though sometimes he says he will come but fails to come. I believe that one day the government will change from CPP to CNRP,” Vichhay told VOD.

Rainsy “doesn’t have weapons but he has workers who volunteer to be with him, and even though [authorities] carry firearms, they won’t be able to stop the force of hundreds of thousands of workers,” he added.

Should the CNRP’s promised march across the border happen, Phay, who leads Vichhay’s worker group, said he wasn’t worried about the Cambodian military using violence against returning migrants since some had soldiers in their families. Phay’s own uncle and cousin were military officers, he said.

Rainsy has called on soldiers not to turn their weapons on CNRP demonstrators, and also said a fund was established to support soldiers who wished to defect.

On Sunday, Chhorn Sokhoeun, a construction worker who was organizing other migrants who planned to join the CNRP return, said at least 300 migrant workers were gathered in Sa Kaeo and Aranyaprathet near the border.

Workers headed there on November 8 and expected Rainsy to arrive the next day, but he was blocked, said Sokhoeun, who has worked in Thailand for nearly a year.

While he moved back toward Bangkok, about 40 km from the capital in Pathum Thani, to meet with others who intended to join Rainsy at the border, the worker representative said they would not retreat from their broader goal.

“We’re willing to wait for a short while in order to have a long success,” he said.

Rainsy’s ‘Been Trying’

More than 100 CNRP members have been charged with “various fabricated charges,” including plotting an attack, incitement to commit a felony and discrediting judicial decisions, and 57 members were detained from mid-August to November 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Tuesday.

Officials have said the police and courts were upholding the law by preventing members of the banned opposition party from conspiring against the government and plotting a supposed coup. Rainsy, however, calls his campaign a nonviolent “people-power” movement.

On Saturday, local human rights organizations noted a heavy military presence at Thai-Cambodian border checkpoints, with armored military vehicles positioned at the Phnom Penh International Airport and in Cambodian provinces bordering Thailand, HRW said.

“People crossing the border reported being checked by Thai and Cambodian officials against wanted posters of exiled opposition members,” according to HRW.

“In a number of instances near the Thai town of Aranyaprathet, Thai police detained Cambodians holding foreign passports and questioned them.”

About 50 km from the border on Friday, three Cambodia-born Americans said they were held at a police station for about three hours by Thai authorities after their group of about 30 CNRP supporters from abroad, who planned to cross the border with Rainsy and were traveling in three vehicles, were stopped at a highway checkpoint.

Thai officers treated them well, but didn’t say much about why they were detaining the group other than claiming that there was something wrong with their car, said Daley Uy, who traveled last week to Thailand from Dallas, Texas, where he has lived since 2005.

Uy, a 35-year-old fiber optic technician, said he had taken three weeks off from work and would wait till then to accompany Rainsy and other CNRP supporters on their cross-border march for democracy.

Uy’s father, an activist with the Khmer Nation Party, Rainsy’s early political party, was killed in Cambodia in 1999 in what police said was a robbery, according to Uy.

He said he first noticed an “outspoken” politician — Rainsy — when he was just 12 years old.

Uy also said seeing dissident Kung Raiya jailed for selling T-shirts emblazoned with the face of slain political analyst and government critic Kem Ley touched a nerve. Like Raiya, Uy said he is also the father of a young child.

In addition, Uy said he noted that “my country has been controlled by the Vietnamese since 1979,” the year Vietnamese forces occupied Cambodia after helping Cambodian forces overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime.

Rainsy and his CNRP supporters often criticize the ruling party — among various other criticisms like human rights violations and corruption — for being a puppet of Vietnam.

Speaking at a roadside restaurant in Mueang Sa Kaeo district, about an hour drive from the border crossing at Poipet, Uy and the two others said that while Saturday came and went without Rainsy’s arrival, they still had hope in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-time political rival.

“We know the reason why he can’t be there, so yeah, we’re still with him,” Uy said of Rainsy.

“He’s been trying. That guy’s been trying. He puts his life on the line, even though with all the threats that Hun Sen made to him,” he added.

The prime minister, who has led Cambodia for more than three decades, and other officials have vowed to have Rainsy and other CNRP leaders arrested if they step foot inside Cambodia.

Sam Var, 67, said he wasn’t a CNRP member and didn’t always have faith in Rainsy.

But after the party’s 2017 dissolution, he wondered who was going to stand up to Hun Sen.

Rainsy “can stand up,” said Var, a retired taxi driver living in Washington State who moved to the U.S. in 1981.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” he said, with a krama draped over his shoulders.

“I want to see the dignity of the people returned,” he added. “I come for democracy, for change, for human rights.”

Var said he saw Rainsy as a fighter for freedom and democracy, and the struggle was just beginning.

“I want to see the Cambodia like before” the Khmer Rouge, including more educated people, he said. “I love this country and I want to see it for Khmer people again.”

Also from Washington State, Hay Kimsan, 79, said he moved to the U.S. in 1974, but had returned to Cambodia about five times since then, including in 2017 to vote for the CNRP in that year’s commune elections.

In the poll, the last in which the CNRP was allowed to participate, the opposition took about 44 percent of the vote, while the CPP took 51 percent.

Kimsan, a retired engineer, said he would be flying back to the U.S. on Saturday after more than two weeks waiting in Thailand.

“I’m not disappointed in Sam Rainsy at all,” he said, adding that it’d be great if he makes it back to Cambodia.

“I see Cambodia doesn’t have democracy. I want to change it,” Kimsan said.

Meanwhile in Bangkok, some exiled CNRP members were preparing to return home to Cambodia, where they face likely arrest over charges mostly stemming from their public support for Rainsy’s yet-to-be-realized homecoming.

One CNRP activist from Battambang, who asked not to be named due to fears for her safety, told VOD on Saturday that she left Cambodia in September after she was tipped off by a friend who works at the provincial court that she had been charged with plotting an attack in relation to her support for the CNRP.

At least 80 CNRP members have been charged with that crime since August, according to court documents, the CNRP and rights groups. It carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

Despite the risk of arrest, the activist on November 9 said she had planned to return to Cambodia with Rainsy that day. But he never arrived in Thailand.

“If he announces that now everyone has to go [to the border before he arrives], I will still decide to go because today I already prepared clothes and luggage. I was supposed to go this morning, but then was informed to wait,” she said.

The activist said she strongly believed that Rainsy would make it back to Cambodia, and she intended to follow.

“For me, I have no intention to live in a third country. I am still determined to return back to Cambodia.”

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