This week, on November 9, Cambodian Independence Day, two leaders of the opposition are scheduled to return to Phnom Penh after many years in exile. Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and currently based in Paris, and Mu Sochua, deputy leader of the party, who lives in the US but travels frequently to Thailand, are bringing the battle for democracy to the heart of their country.
“It will be a catalyst for change,” Mardi Seng, also an opposition member in exile, said in a message he sent me. “Sam Rainsy frequently mentioned the February 1986 People Power Revolution of the Philippines as an example of change.”
In 2005, when Rainsy was stripped of parliamentary immunity after exposing corruption in government, I was able to interview him for Newsbreak Magazine during a brief visit to Manila. These were his words then: “We get inspiration from you…we will have people power in Cambodia.”
It has been 14 years since Rainsy talked about his aspiration for a popular revolt in Cambodia – and the opposition leader says it is time for them to come home.
“The risk is very high. Although imprisonment is certain and death is likely, we have faith in People Power to bring forth peaceful change…” Mardi Seng said. A crackdown on the opposition has already been taking place in recent weeks, with dozens of activists arrested.
About the impending return, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Rainsy in a speech: “It is a plot to carry out a coup d’etat, for regime change! Millions of people and armed forces are waiting for you on November 9. Your head is not made from iron.”
This momentous event comes soon after the publication of a Reuters investigation on the overseas wealth of relatives and cronies of Hun Sen. Entitled “Khmer Riche,” it tracked multimillion-dollar properties in London and Singapore, extravagant travels and lifestyles, and purchase of citizenship in Cyprus – shocking revelations because 35% of Cambodians are mired in poverty, according to the UNDP.
Cambodia’s despot has been ruling the country for more than 30 years, backed by a global power, China. In 2017, the docile Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, the only serious challenger to Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party, in the lead up to the 2018 sham elections. The Court also banned CNRP leaders from contesting elections till 2022.
Not only that. The government arrested some opposition figures, forcing Mu Sochua to leave the country. Sam Rainsy was already banned from returning to Cambodia in 2015.
This was Mu Sochua's second time to live as an exile: the first was when she was 18 years old. As the Vietnam war was creeping into Cambodia in 1972, her parents sent her and her sister to study in France. She would be away from home for 18 years, during the period the violent Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and transformed it into a vast killing fields. Close to 2 million people lost their lives, including her parents and relatives.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
Similarly, Sam Rainsy left Cambodia for France in 1965 at the age of 16, after his politician father disappeared, believed to have been killed by government agents, the BBC reported. He returned in the 1990s and became finance minister. However, he had to leave again in 2009 because he was set to be jailed on trumped-up charges.
They have been active in their country’s politics – both members of parliament – before being exiled. In particular, Mu Sochua focused on uplifting women.
This tinderbox phase in Cambodia’s politics reminds me of August 1983, 36 years ago, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr returned to Manila. His assassination was an extreme measure by the Marcos regime – and it hastened the fall of the dictatorship.
Like Aquino during his exile, Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua have been shining the spotlight on the death of democracy and human rights abuses in their country. And like Aquino, they are convinced it is time to reclaim their country. The homeland beckons.
This is going to be a long battle ahead.
Till next Monday! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.