By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOMPENH (Reuters) – Self-exiled Cambodian opposition party founder Sam Rainsy said on Wednesday he will return on Saturday to face arrest amid a crackdown at home on members of his banned party and Malaysia’s detention of two party activists trying to return.
The former finance minister has vowed to return to lead demonstrations against the one-party rule of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom he called “a brutal dictator”.
His return could be thwarted by Thailand, whose prime minister said he would not be allowed entry en route to Cambodia.
“For those of you who know me, this may just be the last time you will see me alive as a free man,” Sam Rainsy said in a video message posted on Twitter.
Hun Sen has accused the opposition of fomenting a coup, and his government has arrested at least 48 activists with Sam Rainsy’s banned opposition party this year. The party’s last leader remains under house arrest on treason charges.
Sam Rainsy fled to France four years ago following a conviction for criminal defamation. He also faces a five-year prison sentence in a separate case.
He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were politically motivated.
Sam Rainsy on Wednesday tweeted a photo of his airline ticket from Paris to Bangkok, from where he would travel to Thailand’s border crossing with Cambodia. Hun Sen has ordered airlines not to allow him to board flights into Phnom Penh.
However, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Wednesday said he could not allow interference into the internal affairs of Cambodia, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“According to our commitment to ASEAN, we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism,” Prayuth told reporters when asked about Sam Rainsy.
“I have ordered this, so he probably won’t get in.”
Thailand last week turned away Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s vice president, when she flew into Bangkok’s main international airport.
Mu Sochua later flew to Indonesia, where the Cambodian embassy on Wednesday requested she be arrested after she attempted to hold a news conference.
Dozens of other opposition activists who fled Cambodia fearing arrest have vowed to return in support of Sam Rainsy.
On Monday, Malaysian authorities detained two Cambodian activists waiting to board a flight to Thailand. Malaysia withdrew an order to deport them to Cambodia after an appeal, a rights group said.
The CNRP’s remaining leader in Cambodia, Kem Sokha, was charged with treason in 2017 and months later the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition party.
Hun Sen’s party went on to win every seat in parliament in elections held in 2018.
(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok and Tom Allard in Jakarta; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Tom Hogue, Robert Birsel)