Senate and CPP President Chea Sim returned from Thailand Thursday morning, to the same police presence that escorted him out of the country at the start of his mysterious trip.
He was met by National Police Director General Hok Lundy, whose officers prevented the half dozen or so journalists on hand from entering the VIP terminal and questioning Chea Sim about his trip.
Hok Lundy, a favored enforcer of Prime Minister Hun Sen, had escorted Chea Sim to Bangkok early on the morning of July 13, hours before Chea Sim, in his role as acting head of state, was to approve an “additional Constitution” to end the nearly yearlong political deadlock.
Chea Sim’s abrupt departure and a heavy police presence around his home fueled speculation by opposition politicians and observers that the ruling party president had balked at the new government blueprint, perhaps desiring better positions for his faction of loyalists.
CPP officials have refuted such speculation, maintaining that Chea Sim went to Bangkok for a medical examination and rest.
“His trip was not related to politics, it was simply a medical checkup,” Chea Sorn, the CPP president’s chief of Cabinet, said Thursday. He also said Chea Sim had returned home.
Though few journalists made it to the airport for the guarded homecoming, dozens loitered at the Ministry of Information, where government officials had promised a 9:30 am news conference featuring 20 defecting Sam Rainsy Party activists—men alleged by Hun Sen to be illegal militants.
At 11:30, six men arrived, introduced by Kem Chunnawath, deputy director of state-run television station TVK, as contrite former members of the opposition’s armed force.
The leader of the six was Long Serey, an opposition party activist who had promised since Tuesday to lead a group defection of up to 40 Sam Rainsy Party activists.
The six had belonged to the Sam Rainsy Party’s Committee No 14, an aboveboard “shadow ministry” that monitored and reported to party leadership on the activities of the military, the Defense Ministry and related government departments.
In a speech Sunday at the Ministry of Interior, Hun Sen accused the opposition party of recruiting a rebel force bent on revolt. He compared the militants to the outlawed Cambodian Freedom Fighters. Subsequent comments by government officials confirmed that Hun Sen had referred to Committee No 14.
“I defected because I realized I had been cheated when Prime Minister Hun Sen made the public statement that the group was an armed force. For the sake of my followers, I had to lead the defection,” Long Serey told reporters.
There were actually 37 people who had intended to defect on Thursday, he said, but “SRP activists went and threatened them and confiscated their party ID cards, and told them that, ‘If you defect, Hun Sen will feed you to the crocodiles.’”
All six men denied having taken bribes to appear at the news conference and said they would join Funcinpec.
Kem Chunnawath stopped reporters from asking questions after about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, 16 opposition party members active in Committee No 14, and still loyal to Sam Rainsy, wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk, requesting that he protect them from persecution by Hun Sen’s government.
“Concerning the accusation by Hun Sen, we cannot accept that because we have not done anything like he accused. What we have done is not contrary to the Constitution,” the letter stated. “We only support the Sam Rainsy Party. We are only the spokesmen who report from the provinces and towns on land disputes, human rights abuses, human trafficking and especially irregular activities committed by the military and police.”
The letter also told of government agents threatening opposition activists and coercing them with 100,000 riel bribes (about $25) to make confessions of militancy to Funcinpec.
Hun Sen said Sunday he would offer clemency to all defectors, as long as they offered testimony against their leaders in court.
Ney Thol, director of the Military Court, said Thursday that complaints against the so-called rebels had been filed and were being considered by an investigating judge. He said it was too soon to say whether arrest warrants would be issued.
Cheam Channy, a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker and director of Committee No 14, repeated Thursday that he had never recruited a rebel force but said he would go to court if he is summoned.
He predicted that any trial would be rigged against him. He also dismissed the six defectors’ confessions as fraudulent.
Incoming Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said Thursday that CPP and Funcinpec lawmakers had agreed to lift Cheam Channy’s parliamentary immunity, in case the Military Court decides he is guilty of raising an illegal armed force.
Nhiek Bun Chhay, Funcinpec’s newly appointed deputy prime minister and co-Minister of Defense, refused to comment on the matter.