BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodia's fugitive opposition leader Sam Rainsy
says he will return from France on November 9 to his Southeast Asian
homeland, where he faces at least 15 years imprisonment.
Not many people expect Mr. Rainsy, 70, to arrive in the capital Phnom
Penh after authorities warned they have "prepared handcuffs" for him.
"I don't see how Sam Rainsy braves the risks on his own and returns to
Cambodia unless he is well-protected diplomatically and well-escorted
physically, like a puppet to someone," Chhang Song said in an
Mr. Chhang was former Washington-backed President Lon Nol's
information minister before they fled together to America in 1975 when
the U.S. lost its wars in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
"Though having been initially strongly popular, Sam Rainsy is an
aristocrat to the teeth and is losing considerably his support from
the Cambodian people as he has failed many of his promises," said Mr.
Chhang, who recently retired as advisor to Cambodia's authoritarian
Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Craig Etcheson, a founder of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center
of Cambodia which investigates the late Pol Pot's 1975-79 Khmer Rouge
regime, and a former director of Yale University's Cambodia Genocide
Program, also dismissed Mr. Rainsy's announcement.
"I do not expect that he will return. Rainsy has publicly announced
several times that he will return to face the multiple legal cases
against him, but he has never actually done so without the prospect of
a royal pardon," Mr. Etcheson said in an interview.
"There currently appears to be no prospect of a pardon for Rainsy.
Claiming that he will return to Cambodia does seem to cause a mild
amount of turbulence inside the Phnom Penh regime, but on the other
hand, repeatedly assuring his supporters that he will return and then
failing to follow through may also gradually degrade both his own
credibility and the esprit of his followers."
Mr. Rainsy repeatedly boasted he will return home, including a no-show
He promised to "confiscate the ill-gotten fortune of the Hun Sen
family and their cronies."
On August 16 Mr. Rainsy announced a new plan to return with other
Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials on November 9 when
the country celebrates its 1953 independence from colonial France.
"Mr. Rainsy is a convicted person," Justice Ministry spokesman Chin
Malin said August 17. "When he returns, our authorities will implement
the court order and arrest him."
Mr. Rainsy may be expecting the U.S., France and other countries to
support him if arrested. But Hun Sen frequently shrugs off
international complaints about his regime.
The foreign ministry recently told Cambodia's embassies not to issue
visas to six European Parliament members or anyone else wanting to
escort Mr. Rainsy to Phnom Penh.
The government warned Mr. Rainsy's supporters not to protect him if he arrives.
"Please do not use yourselves as shields for the convicts. It is
useless," said Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples' Party spokesman Sok Eysan
on August 18.
"For those convicts, the authorities have prepared handcuffs for them.
"November 9 is Independence Day for Cambodian people in the whole
country. It is not a day for convicts and rebel groups," Mr. Eysan
"Rainsy has been very effective from outside Cambodia, but inside
Cambodia, people are being arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of
supporting him. The pressure on him to return has been intense," Mr.
Rainsy's 1998-1999 Press Secretary Rich Garella said in an interview.
"It appears that he [Hun Sen] is very worried, since he is using
threats and intimidation to discourage Rainsy from returning," said
Mr. Garella, an American who was also a communications consultant in
Phnom Penh for the Washington-based International Republican Institute
during a 2003 election.
On August 20, Hun Sen and National Police Deputy Chief Dy Vichea filed
lawsuits in a Paris court against Mr. Rainsy for defamation.
Mr. Rainsy had accused Hun Sen of orchestrating a fatal 2008
helicopter crash of Hun Sen's powerful ally, National Police
Commissioner Hok Lundy, who is Mr. Vichea's father.
Mr. Rainsy claimed Mr. Vichea then plotted with Interior Minister Sar
Kheng to take revenge against Hun Sen.
In May 2019, a Cambodian court sentenced Mr. Rainsy in absentia to
eight years imprisonment for "inciting military personnel to
disobedience" and "insulting King Norodom Sihamoni" during 2017.
"Please all armed forces, soldiers and police, don't follow the orders
of the dictator [Hun Sen] if he orders you to shoot at and kill
innocent people," Mr. Rainsy had written on Facebook.
He smeared the king by alleging the monarch's statement urging people
to vote in 2018 was "a forgery...made under duress."
In 2016, Mr. Rainsy received a five-year prison sentence for
presenting a forged treaty erasing the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
He became an international fugitive in 2015, dodging a two-year prison
sentence for criminal defamation. Other jail sentences await him for
additional offenses committed over the years.
Mr. Rainsy was Cambodia's 1993-94 finance minister. He later founded
the CNRP, the country's biggest opposition group, enjoying strong
popularity during a 2013 general election.
The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in 2017. Mr. Rainsy's supporters
claimed it was done to enable Hun Sen to win all 125 contested seats
in Parliament in a 2018 general election.
In 2017 a court also locked CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha under house
arrest for alleged treasonous links to a U.S. activist organization.
Mr. Sokha is awaiting trial. Other CNRP leaders fled abroad.
In 1998, the U.S. State Department and its then-Ambassador to Cambodia
Kenneth Quinn denied Mr. Rainsy's allegations that they were blocking
a U.S. FBI investigation into a 1997 grenade attack in Phnom Penh
which killed more than 20 people and injured 100, including one
Mr. Rainsy said the attack was an assassination attempt while he led a
protest. His bodyguard died protecting him from the explosion.
On the campaign trail hoping to win a 1997 election to become prime
minister, Mr. Rainsy said in an interview, "I'm afraid that the FBI is
under political pressure not to react."
Asked what pressure, Rainsy replied:
"By the State Department, not to make public any conclusion, because
this would create a lot of problems for bilateral relations between
the present Phnom Penh government and Washington."
If Mr. Quinn "pushes for this investigation leading to Hun Sen being
pointed out as behind the murder, I think he [Quinn] would look very
bad, because why has he entertained such a good relationship, for such
a long time, with such a criminal?
"That is why he [Quinn] has to minimize all these stories, and why he
has to block this investigation," Mr. Rainsy said.
"I don't like to see attacks on the U.S. State Department, or
Ambassador Quinn, for political purposes," State Department Assistant
Secretary Stanley Roth responded a few days later in an interview Mr.
Quinn arranged by telephone to Washington.
Mr. Rainsy's allegations were "absolute nonsense," Mr. Roth said.
In a separate interview Mr. Quinn said, "I would challenge anyone to
produce any evidence or indication that I, or my embassy, ever took
any action to influence the FBI investigation in any direction."
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60
Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News
Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies
and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in
Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor
Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental
patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco
His online sites are: