Cambodia ‘playing with fire’ by cosying up to China, says opposition figure Sam Rainsy

Embattled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy on Tuesday warned that the government’s growing ties with China  threatened the rights of citizens and undermined the Southeast Asian country’s fight for democracy.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur after a private visit to the Malaysian Houses of Parliament, he said Prime Minister

Hun Sens’s administration was “playing with fire” by allowing the China-Cambodia relationship to become too cosy.

“Cambodia must be neutral and not allow China to build facilities that can be turned into military facilities very quickly,” the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) co-founder told reporters.

Sam Rainsy said that when democracy finally prevailed in the country, “we will not allow China to build any mo;otary facilities  on Cambodian soil”. His comments came a day after he warned of an influx of Chinese settlers into Cambodia  as ties between the nations deepened.

“China is turning Cambodia into a Chinese colony. They send people who are not tourists. These people are not wealthy and come from all walks of life,” he told news website Malaysiakini, adding that Hun Sen was to blame for making the country too reliant on Beijing.

“We don’t blame China. We blame our leadership because they allowed China to do that. If we had strong leadership with integrity, no foreign country can do that in Cambodia,” he said.

Beijing has in recent years forged close ties with Cambodia, pouring investments into a China-Cambodia tax-free economic zone in Sihanoukville  and funding development projects, including motorways and dams.

Sam Rainsy was in Malaysia after Thailand last week denied him entry into his transit destination, scuppering his plans to return to Cambodia to lead rallies against Hun Sen.

He was prevente by a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok from Paris, where he has been living in self-imposed exile, in a decision he described as coming “from very high up”.

Accompanied by CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua – who was herself barred from entering Cambodia and held by Malaysian immigration authorities for nearly 20 hours last week – Sam Rainsy vowed that he and other banned opponents would press on with their efforts to return home.

We are not criminals. We are democrats. We are freedom fighters. And here in Malaysia, we have many friends.Sam Rainsy

“I will be staying in the region because the situation can change very quickly. I will go back to Cambodia when there is the material possibility to do so with my colleagues,” he said in Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s just a matter of time, it could even be as early as tomorrow,” he said, adding that his imminent return hinged on negotiations between Cambodia and the EU, which said in February it was considering whether to halt Cambodia’s preferential market access under a trade agreement.

On Sunday, Cambodia lifted house arrest restrictions on CNRP leader Kem Sokha  two years after he was charged with treason, although he remained banned from politics and leaving the country.

The move was widely seen as a result of pressure on Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader who has ruled for more than 30 years.

Kem Sokha’s release indicated that measures barring opposition members from entering Cambodia could be at least partially lifted, Sam Rainsy said.

“The Cambodian government must face responsibility if it does not want an economic crisis,” he said, noting that the growing pressure made it an ideal time to renew the push for democracy in Cambodia.

“Now is the right time [to return], as there is a unique combination of internal pressure and external pressure,” Sam Rainsy said.

There was “hope for a popular, peaceful uprising”, he said, adding that even as Hun Sen, who fears a coup, attempts to deploy the army, the strongman was “afraid, not sure of the army’s loyalty”.

Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua said they were grateful to Malaysian MPs and government authorities for respecting their rights and allowing them to enter the country “Contrary to allegations raised against us by the Cambodian government, we are not criminals. We are democrats. We are freedom fighters,” Sam Rainsy said. “And here in Malaysia, we have many friends.”

He said he had met Malaysian politicians from both sides of the divide, and that being received in Parliament was a meaningful gesture that showed Association of Southeast Asian Nations  member states were not giving in to Cambodia’s diplomatic pressure to turn them away.

The CNRP leaders intend to travel on to Jakarta on Wednesday to meet civil society members and discuss issues of human rights and democracy. Hun Sen has in recent years clamped down on dissent, including dissolving the main opposition party and shutting down independent media.

Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile in 2005 over fears of arrest, and was in 2010 tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for charges that human rights watchdogs claim were politically motivated. He was later granted a royal pardon.

In 2013, the CNRP won 55 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly, Cambodia’s lower house, although the opposition maintained that Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, which garnered 68 seats – a loss of over 20 seats – had engaged in electoral fraud.

Sam Rainsy fled again in 2016 after being charged with defamation and incitement, and as of 2017 has been banned from taking part in politics.


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