Cambodian opposition officials were thwarted Saturday in their latest attempt to return to Phnom Penh from exile to defend themselves against treason and incitement charges, as airlines refused to board them without the visas they needed after the government cancelled their passports.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Deputy President Mu Sochua and fellow party leaders and activists had planned to go back to Phnom Penh this weekend to face the charges, which they insist are designed to silence the opposition.
They tried to fly even though the government had canceled their Cambodian passports and those with foreign travel documents have been unable to obtain visas to enter the country.
Mu Sochua was unable to board a Singapore Airlines flight to the Southeast Asian city-state from Los Angeles, while another CNRP official was denied boarding a flight from Paris to Singapore without a Cambodia’s visa. The airline said they cannot board passengers without destination country visas.
“The question that we should ask is ‘Who denied us visas?’ I didn’t go to Cambodia as a tourist, but to answer before the court. I am appealing for justice because my rights are being violated,” Mu Sochua told RFA.
She blamed Cambodia’s government for abusing law and creating obstacles to prevent her from going home, and said she would continue working on different strategies to return to Cambodia to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 35-year rule.
“Sochua knows what crimes she committed. We did not give them visas–that is for sure,” said government spokesperson Phay Siphan, who earlier said that Mu Sochua and other CNRP members are not welcome in Cambodia.
“If the government wanted her returned, we will ask her to be extradited to Cambodia. She is not an ordinary citizen. She is among rebels against the rule of law,” he said.
In November, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned at least 113 individuals connected to the CNRP to stand trial together on charges of conspiracy and incitement to sow chaos in society—crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The government has not presented serious evidence of the charges behind the crackdown on the CNRP that began with the arrest of party President Kem Sokha in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, followed in November of that year by a ban of the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The Supreme Court’s dissolution of the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on civil society, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Yat Phearum, a CNRP activist who had taken refuge in Thailand, said he remains committed to return home with CNRP leaders.
“We have already prepared to be arrested, but Hun Sen is a coward who is afraid to confront us,” he said.
Legal expert Vorn Chanlout told that the government “must guarantee that Cambodians will not be stripped of their nationality or expelled” and said the opposition party should continue pressing the court to ensure their right to return.
Saturday marked the second attempt by the CNRP top leadership to fly to Cambodia to deal with the three-year-old political crisis. In November 2019, Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile since late 2015, tried to return, but his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.