A day after lifting an order barring the return of Sam Rainsy, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday beckoned the “brave” former opposition leader back home to face arrest as Mr. Rainsy said that returning would be a “silly gift” to a cowardly prime minister.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen confirmed that he had ordered the reversal of the October directive, which forbid immigration officials and airlines from allowing Mr. Rainsy into the country, after hearing Mr. Rainsy tell Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Tuesday that Mr. Hun Sen was too scared to let him return.
“Please come freely by water, overland, or whatever,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Look! Brave man, the door is open.”
In a six-paragraph statement sent to reporters on Thursday evening, Mr. Rainsy claimed that coming home would jeopardize his party’s mission.
“I am not interested in becoming a childish and inconsistent ‘hero’ whose sacrifice would be useless and practically amount to a definitive and untimely retreat in the middle of a decisive battle,” he wrote.
Mr. Rainsy has not set foot in Cambodia since November 2015 when courts issued a warrant for his arrest over a long-dormant defamation suit while he was attending a meeting in South Korea.
Though he initially promised to immediately return to face the charges, the former CNRP president has remained abroad in Paris as courts have stacked up charges and prison sentences the opposition and many international observers call politically motivated.
Mr. Hun Sen urged his longtime adversary to give up on the notion that those charges would be erased by a third royal pardon, repeating his claim that he’d be willing to chop off and throw away his right hand before he brokered another deal.
“If prison is his obstacle, he will never come for his whole life,” the prime minister said.
The safest route for Mr. Rainsy was to immediately hand himself over to authorities upon arrival, according to the prime minister, who claimed that the immigration order had been set up to protect Mr. Rainsy out of fear that he would be attacked upon return.
“The old directive was intended to ensure his safety and life,” he said. “I do not want to see Cambodian blood bleeding.”
The prime minister also questioned Mr. Rainsy’s motives for returning to run as prime minister, pointing out that CNRP President Kem Sokha had taken over for Mr. Rainsy, who resigned in February in the wake of a newly amended Law on Political Parties that would allow courts to dissolve political parties with convicts at the helm.
“If you go together, be aware of the party’s dissolution,” the prime minister said. “What excuse will he have next?”
Though Mr. Rainsy told RFA on Tuesday that he would risk imprisonment and death for his country, he has since hedged that rhetoric.
“Getting into the hands of Hun Sen under the present circumstances would not advance our cause; on the contrary it would be a silly gift to Hun Sen—who has continuously tried to eliminate me since the deadly March 30, 1997, grenade attack in Phnom Penh,” he said. “What is the point of going to jail for the sake of going to jail, or getting killed for the sake of getting killed?”
Mr. Rainsy also attempted to turn the tables on critics who questioned his bravery.
“When it comes to cowardice in the fight between two politicians, isn’t the coward the one who uses a country’s tribunal, army and police under his control to eliminate his opponent as a single person with bare hands?” he asked.
The statement was capped off with a cartoon of a pot-bellied prime minister and security forces squaring off with a far larger and chiseled caricature of himself in a boxing ring, with Mr. Hun Sen saying “Don’t let him into the ring.”
“Between two boxers at a boxing match, isn’t the coward the one who prevents his challenger from entering the ring in order to secure an easy but fake victory?” Mr. Rainsy asked.