July 2, 2020 | News | No Comments
The Malaysian authorities have detained a senior Cambodian official who plans to join a mass return of exiled opposition leaders to Cambodia on Saturday, in what the Southeast Asian country’s autocratic leader has denounced as an attempted coup.
Mu Sochua, 65, the vice-president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is being held at the airport in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, ahead of her bid to fly home to Phnom Penh with Sam Rainsy, the party’s founder, and other senior politicians and Cambodian supporters.
The reasons for her detention have not been made clear. Ms Sochua was also recently refused entry to Thailand and Cambodia sought her arrest after a news conference in Indonesia on Wednesday, which was hijacked by its ambassador to Jakarta.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Ms Sochua said that she and fellow exiled CNRP leaders were ready to risk detention or death in returning to their homeland to try to peacefully restore democracy.
Cambodia this week deployed troops along its borders and staged live fire drills in an apparent effort to intimidate the delegation.
“Democracy in Cambodia is dead. It is a one-party state,” she said, accusing Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister of being a “dictator” who lived in a “fear and paranoia.”
She added: “The reason why Hun Sen publicly announced that he will bring the armed forces to arrest us – or do more than arresting, I don’t know what he will do – that means that he is very afraid of our appeal for the people to come and walk alongside us.”
Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving prime minister. Last year he extended his rule of more than three decades in an election that was widely criticised by the international community as neither free nor fair.
His ruling party won all the seats in parliament after the CNRP was disbanded by a Supreme Court ruling. Kem Sokha, the party’s leader, was arrested and jailed in 2017.
Ms Sochua, who fled Cambodia in 2017 after Hun Sen publicly denounced her as an “urban terrorist,” said that exiled leaders had mapped out several scenarios in response to their planned return.
“The best scenario is that there will be dialogue through international community intervention…not just with Mr Hun Sen but with..civil society, the people,” she said.
“Among the issues that we want to discuss and find a solution to is the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Kem Sokha, and our right to organise political activities and get back in touch with our grassroots supporters, to go around Cambodia without fear of being arrested.”
While the opposition did not want any violence, she acknowledged the risk.
“The not-so-good scenario is that we will be arrested immediately,” she said. “In the worst scenario, there will be an uprising and bloodshed and we are killed, or one of us is killed or seriously wounded, and there is chaos and the country goes back to point zero.”
Following a turbulent history when the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot killed 1-3 million in a horrific genocide in the 1970s, Cambodia began to function nominally as a democracy in the 1990s, with its beautiful beaches and stunning Angkor Wat temple complex becoming a huge lure for tourists.
The crackdown on the opposition in recent years coincided with a surge in its popularity. In the 2013 general election and the 2017 communal elections, the CNRP won nearly half of the vote.
“We represent half of the country,” said Ms Sochua. “How many times have we walked alongside the people, facing the police, facing grenade attacks? she asked.
“Taking Hun Sen’s word seriously, that will paralyse you and that’s exactly what he wants – you fall in his trap. Cambodia needs people who are willing to come out and peacefully ask for change.”
The Malaysian immigration authorities did not respond to Telegraph enquiries about Ms Sochua’s detention.
Saifuddin Abdullah, the foreign minister, told FMT, a local media outlet, that Malaysia had received a request from Cambodia to deport some individuals trying to enter the country. He added that immigration officials simply wanted to interview Ms Sochua.
But Human Rights Watch called her detention ludicrous and unacceptable. “She’s done nothing wrong and should be immediately released and allowed to undertake the consultations she planned with the Malaysia government and civil society groups,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director for Asia.