Facing increasing pressure within the opposition party to return to Cambodia, CNRP President Sam Rainsy on Thursday posted a video online defending his proposal to come back only in exchange for the release of all “political prisoners.”
The notion has been rejected by the ruling CPP and ridiculed by Kem Monovithya, a member of the CNRP’s top decision-making body and the daughter of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha.
“I am ready to immediately come back to Cambodia and let authorities arrest and detain me in exchange for the release from jail of all political prisoners,” Mr. Rainsy wrote on Wednesday in a post to Facebook along with a video.
“Please release all of them—about 20 or 30 people—and when they are guaranteed to be released at the same time, I will travel to Cambodia immediately,” he said in the video. “Please help to broadcast that I am Sam Rainsy. I am not scared. I dare to sacrifice for the nation.”
Local rights group Licadho, which is keeping a running tally of “political prisoners” in the country’s jails, currently puts the figure at 27, including 19 opposition officials or activists.
Mr. Rainsy, who has been living abroad to avoid a two-year prison sentence for defamation, explained that the swap was a necessary condition of his return because if he simply joined those already in prison, there would be no one to help seek their freedom.
“If I go and no one is released and I am arrested, then they would have arrested all of us and we would be imprisoned together. How can we help each other? If I go and cannot help, so why should I go and be cheated?” Mr. Rainsy asked.
Mr. Rainsy’s video followed comments from CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann on Monday outlining the opposition leader’s proposed prisoner swap.
In response, Ms. Monovithya, the party’s deputy director of public affairs and a standing committee member, posted a number of tweets ridiculing Mr. Rainsy’s plan and his decision to remain in exile.
“It’s absurd to pretend to suggest someone can go to prison on behalf of others,” she tweeted on Wednesday. Referring to Mr. Rainsy as “SR,” Ms. Monovithya rejected the notion that he would face certain arrest if he returned without any guarantees.
“Cpp knew threats work w SR like magic. So they keep doing it. He needs to break the pattern,” she wrote in one tweet. “He may or may not be arrested. Look at Kem Sokha’s case, but that’s the risk a leader needs to take,” said another.
After police attempted to arrest Mr. Sokha in late May, he decided to hunker down in the CNRP’s headquarters rather than flee. He has since been sentenced to five months in prison in a case widely seen as being politically motivated, remaining holed up in the party offices as his lawyers appeal the verdict.
In an interview with Channel News Asia earlier this month, Mr. Sokha said he would prefer to have Mr. Rainsy in the country, but that he was not essential to the party’s operations on the ground.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent member of the CNRP who has described his role as being the “opposition within the opposition,” said that there was a growing desire within the party to see Mr. Rainsy return.
“I think this belief is shared by some people in the leadership of the CNRP,” he said. “Not by everyone, but shared by members of the leadership.”
“It would be good for Sam Rainsy to stand up for justice inside the country rather than outside,” the prince added. “Put pressure on the CPP.”
Mr. Rainsy has previously promised to return to Cambodia in time for the next national election in July 2018, and said on Thursday that the prisoner swap was only a short-term option.
“I will return before the 2018 election. The exchange of prisoners is only a short-term proposal for Hun Sen to take it or leave it,” he said, adding that the CPP’s claims that the courts were simply implementing the rule of law were “farcical.”
“They just want to silence all citizens who do not support them and, with the growing popular discontent, they will arrest more and more people.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the ruling party was not interested in entertaining ideas put forward by a fugitive.
“We know that Mr. Sam Rainsy is a prisoner, so his speech is useless,” Mr. Eysan said.
“His speech is just to confuse people about the law,” he added. “No country in the world exchanges prisoners like that.”