Slapped with a criminal conviction and living in Paris in self-imposed exile, SRP President Sam Rainsy is left with the task of maintaining his political relevancy as well as his job as the leader of the country’s main opposition party.
Some observers chided Mr Rainsy for leaving Cambodia and missing the government’s court case against him, saying his absence does nothing to help the political opposition or the two jailed villagers who were convicted for their involvement with his protest at the border.
But others said that Mr Rainsy will bring his fight to an international level, and that the government’s handling of the court case, which the opposition branded a sham trial, will backfire if he is not allowed to return and campaign in Cambodia’s next national election in 2013.
“It is a problem both for him and his party,” said Son Soubert, a member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council and longtime political observer. “He is a leader. He should be brave enough to face jail. There is no need to be afraid.”
The Svay Rieng Provincial Court on Wednesday found Mr Rainsy guilty of inciting racial discrimination and damaging public property, sentencing him to two years in prison and ordering him to pay thousands of dollars in fines.
The court also found two Svay Rieng villager who participated in Mr Rainsy’s removal of temporary border markers along the Vietnamese frontier guilty of destruction of property and sentenced them to a year in jail.
Koul Panha, executive director of Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the issue of border encroachment is one that resonates with every Cambodian but that Mr Rainsy now has an uphill battle if he wishes to return to Phnom Penh any time soon.
However, the political situation could become sticky for both the SRP as well as the ruling-CPP if Mr Rainsy’s absence were to drag on until the 2012-2013 elections.
Mr Panha said the SRP would be left without its head to campaign or organizes its party platform. As for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, it may face criticism for running in an election where its main opponent remains a wanted man by the government.
“We will see how the result plays out,” he said.
In February 2005, Mr Rainsy went into self-imposed exile for little over a year after he faced charges of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then president of Funcinpec and the National Assembly.
Mr Rainsy was tried in absentia in December 2005, he was found guilty but received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni in February 2006 after he expressed “regrets” over the incident to Mr Hun Sen.
Upon returning, Mr Rainsy told reporters, “I didn’t run away. I had to reorganize the forces that are available to the party inside and outside the country.”
Mr Rainsy has said he will not return to Cambodia until all people jailed in land disputes are set free and their land returned. He said yesterday that he believes the authorities will release the two jailed villagers-Prum Chea and Meas Srey-in return for his promise to come back.
“Yes I believe so because I am their main target. The others are at best scapegoats, and at worst hostages. This is a terrorist state. Terrorists usually seize hostages (small fish) as a coward means to get the big fish. They should accept my offer,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
Mr Rainsy and SRP officials said the president remains abroad to help shore up support from the international community. Yesterday, Mr Rainsy said he would be traveling in the coming days in Europe, North America and Australia to present his argument on the demarcation dispute at the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
Others took a more lenient viewpoint, saying Mr Rainsy’s political career is not doomed.
Chea Vannath, from president of the Center for Social Development, said that the opposition will continue their fight whether Mr Rainsy is in the country or not.
“The fight goes on. It is not that he is overseas and enjoys himself, it is part of his struggle,” Ms Vannath said.
However, those who will now struggle most are rank and file opposition supporters and members, who will likely feel the most pressure in the prevailing political climate, she said.
“I feel sorry for the two farmers because their families need them to support the two families,” she added.
Political science professor Ros Chantrabot, vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, was less forgiving, saying that Mr Rainsy popularity will diminish as a result of his not returning to “face the problem,” and that party supporters will feel abandoned.
“He is a leader who pulled out the demarcation poles and when he faces problems he leaves the country,” Mr Chantrabot said.
“He should have used other means rather than pulling out the demarcation poles. He should have taken pictures of the poles or held a press conference on the issue, or she should have sent a petition to the National Assembly and government seeking to clarify the issue.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that if Mr Rainsy or the opposition party wishes to complain or change the process of the Cambodian-Vietnam boarder demarcation, they can do so through legal and legislative channels.