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Malaysia expels Cambodian opposition leader

Hun Sen says Sam Rainsy and his group were in Malaysia plotting 'social chaos' ahead of Cambodia's general election

Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, arrives at court as the accused in a defamation lawsuit filed by Cambodia's prime minister, in Paris on Sept 1, 2022

Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, arrives at court as the accused in a defamation lawsuit filed by Cambodia's prime minister, in Paris on Sept 1, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 31, 2023 07:07 AM GMT

Updated: May 31, 2023 07:55 AM GMT

Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, and his entourage were expelled from Malaysia on May 31 for allegedly plotting “social chaos” ahead of a general election in his native country on July 23.

Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked his Malaysian counterpart Anwar Ibrahim for ordering the expulsion of the leader of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who, semi-official news outlets claimed, was intending to hold a series of political meetings.

“Sam Rainsy and his entourage allegedly plotted to cause social chaos ahead of Cambodia's 2023 general elections,” Hun Sen said, according to the government mouthpiece Fresh News.

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Hun Sen said Anwar was initially unaware of the CNRP leader’s presence in Malaysia, saying “Sam Rainsy entered through the private gate and held a French passport.”

He also warned he would welcome Sam Rainsy and his entourage “with BM-21 Grad” rocket launchers if they attempted to cross into Cambodia.

Anwar — who spent many years as a political prisoner in his own country — had promised Hun Sen that he would not allow Sam Rainsy to use Malaysia as a staging post for political activities during a visit to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh earlier this year.

"From now, until the election, please be quiet"

The CNRP was outlawed by the courts in 2017, enabling Hun Sen’s long ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly during an election the following year. 

Sam Rainsy fled abroad amid a crackdown on his supporters at home.

It is a feat the CPP is widely expected to repeat in July since the Candlelight Party (CLP) — formed out of the remnants of the CNRP — was disqualified on May 16 by the National Election Committee (NEC) from contesting the poll. The decision was upheld by the Constitutional Council.

That prompted sharp criticism from Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union. 

Later, Hun Sen told foreign embassies and ‘other countries’ on May 23 to stop commenting about Cambodia, saying, “From now, until the election, please be quiet.”

“Let us use local rules to solve the problem of democracy in Cambodia,” he said.

One Western ambassador based in Cambodia told this writer: “Yes, he did say that. But that does not mean we have to stay silent.”

In the meantime,  human rights experts from the United States, Japan and United Nations have added their voices to the chorus of criticism over the CLP’s disqualification.

Matthew Miller, the US State Department spokesman, said the US was deeply troubled by the NEC’s decision and its support from the Constitutional Council.

“Contrived legal actions, threats, harassment, and politically motivated criminal charges targeting opposition parties, independent media, and civil society undermine Cambodia’s international commitments to develop as a multiparty democracy,” he said.

“We are alarmed by the restrictions imposed"

He added “we strongly urge Cambodian authorities to reverse course to ensure their citizens can participate in a fair, multiparty democracy consistent with the Cambodian constitution and freely exercise their human rights.”

On May 26, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ono Hikariko said Tokyo had supported Cambodia’s democratic development through dialogue with all political parties, civil society and other stakeholders and her government is watching the situation with concern.

“In the path towards building a healthy democratic society, it is essential to create an environment which enables the people to express diverse opinions,” she said.

Meanwhile UN experts, including Vitit Muntarbhorn — the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia — issued a statement saying all Cambodians have the right to freedom of assembly, association and expression for all political actors, civil society and voters.

“We are alarmed by the restrictions imposed on the right of political parties to participate in elections,” the experts said, calling for the elections to be held in accordance with the minimum standards for free and fair elections.

“This is essential to ensure the freely expressed will of the Cambodian people.”

However, the Cambodian Permanent Mission in Geneva said in a statement that it rejected what it described as misleading, highly politicized and selective remarks.

“To allege that the NEC emphasized modalities that appear to have discriminated against one or more of the country’s main political parties without offering further details is unwarranted,” it said.

“To deliver a free, fair, just and transparent voting process, the NEC has been employing only one single standard to all applicants. To do otherwise is deemed a double standard.”


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