By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOMPENH (Reuters) – Cambodia has deployed troops along its borders and held live fire exercises ahead of the planned return of leaders of the banned main opposition party in a move Prime Minister Hun Sen has labeled as a coup attempt.
At least 48 opposition activists have been arrested this year and accused of plotting to overthrow the government before the planned return from self-exile of Sam Rainsy, founder of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on Saturday.
Rainsy faces arrest if he returns to Cambodia.
“Along the border, we are using existing forces on the ground…and we are using real bullets in exercises,” Cambodia’s Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat said on Monday.
Sucheat said forces would respond only if the opposition uses violence.
Rainsy fled to France four years following a conviction for criminal defamation in which he was ordered to pay $1 million in compensation. He also faces a five-year prison sentence in a separate case.
He has previously said it was legitimate to seek to topple Hun Sen because the prime minister has created a one-party state and was not prepared to hold free and fair elections.
Last year, Hun Sen extended his rule of more than three decades in an election in which his ruling party won all the seats in parliament.
The CNRP had been disbanded months before the election by the Supreme Court, following the 2017 arrest of party leader Kem Sokha.
In a video posted on social media on Monday, Rainsy appealed to soldiers not to obey if Hun Sen orders them to shoot at fellow Cambodians.
“Hun Sen depends on armed forces, police, military police, bodyguards, security guards…those armed forces clearly will not listen to orders by Hun Sen and his allies,” Rainsy said.
“My plan to return to the homeland has been smooth and unchanged…despite threats, intimidation and mistreatment of the National Rescue Party activists,” Rainsy said. “The situation is favourable for nationalists and democrats.”
Mu Sochua, CNRP’s former vice president, was denied entry into Thailand last month ahead of her planned return.
(The story corrects spelling of Sokha in 9th paragraph).
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul, Editing by Kay Johnson and Angus MacSwan)