Cambodian opposition chief readies return from exile

BRUSSELS (AP) — Cambodia's most prominent opposition politician says he's ready to risk imprisonment or death by returning to his country from self-imposed exile to unseat the country's longtime ruler.

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Sam Rainsy, co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, told The Associated Press that he hopes his planned return on Saturday will trigger a nonviolent People's Power-style mass movement to force Prime Minister Hun Sen from office.

"I expect to bring about a democratic change, meaning to put an end to the current regime, which is a brutal dictatorship," he said in an interview Monday in Brussels, where he was seeking support from European Parliament lawmakers.

He said he plans to jet back to Asia from Brussels and prepare to cross into Cambodia from a neighboring country on Saturday, which is Cambodia's Independence Day.

The plan is fraught with jeopardy. If he should succeed in entering his country, prison is a near certainty for him. According to the Justice Ministry, Sam Rainsy has convictions on six offenses — including the criminal libel charge that caused him to go into exile in 2015 to avoid serving a two-year prison sentence — and at least eight other cases are pending. He and several colleagues face charges of armed rebellion for their return plan, which could earn them prison terms of 15-30 years.

In 1997, Sam Rainsy survived an assassination attempt when grenades were tossed at a small rally he was leading in the center of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. At least 16 people were killed and scores were wounded.

"We have to take the risk. I have assessed those risks and they are worth taking, worth taking because the Cambodian people have been suffering for a long time, so we have to try to put an end to the sufferings," he said.

Sam Rainsy's party was touted as posing a threat to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party in last year's general election, but it was dissolved ahead of the polls by the courts, which are viewed as doing the government's bidding. In the 2013 election, his party won almost half the seats in the National Assembly. Huge crowds came out in support when he claimed fraud had robbed his party of victory.

The same late 2017 crackdown that shut down his party and resulted in its lawmakers tossed out of Parliament also closed virtually all critical media outlets and saw the opposition party's co-founder, Kem Sokha, arrested on a charge of treason for having links with an American democracy promotion organization. Other leading party members fled the country.

Hun Sen has maintained his position of prime minister for almost 35 years with a mix of wile and ruthlessness, and has publicly stated his intention to stay in office for two more five-year terms. Sam Rainsy has been a thorn in his sides for decades.

Hun Sen is taking no chances with his arch-enemy's intended return, keeping up a drumbeat of invectives and threats. Local media have reported the strengthening of military forces at Cambodia's borders, showing photos of marching troops.

Even if Sam Rainsy does manage to return, there are questions about whether he could lead a popular uprising.

Hun Sen biographer Sebastian Strangio says while there is a desire for change, people have learned from bitter experience not to challenge Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party, or CPP.

"I think the threat to the CPP is real. The question of whether the people would rise en masse at the first, as Sam Rainsy plants his foot on Cambodian soil for the first time in four years, remains much more of an open question," Strangio said.

"I think people in Cambodia know that Hun Sen has a track record of using force to shape the political realities to his liking and he will not hesitate to use force if he thinks his hold on power is threatened," he said.

But the situation might not arise. Cambodian officials have said they have told neighboring countries — all fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — that Sam Rainsy is unwelcome and should not be allowed to cross the border into Cambodia.

Last week, immigration police in Thailand deported the opposition party's vice president, Mu Sochua, when she arrived at Bangkok's international airport. She is one of several colleagues who are planning to return with Sam Rainsy, despite Cambodia's government also declaring them unwelcome.

Cambodian aviation authorities said they ordered airlines with flights into the country not to carry Sam Rainsy or his colleagues.

Nonetheless, Sam Rainsy insisted he is going ahead.

"This may be the last time you see me alive or as a free man," he said. "Because in a few days I may be dead, I may be put in jail, so while I am a free man I want to express my conviction that democracy will prevail."

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Harmer reported from Bangkok.