The government has barred airlines and officials posted at airports from allowing self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia, according to a Council of Ministers letter sent to the country’s immigration chief.
Prompted by a September 16 note from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the October 12 letter from Council of Ministers Secretary of State Tekrat Samrach orders Sok Phal, director-general of the Interior Ministry’s general department of immigration, to “take measures to prevent the individual Sam Rainsy, leader of the CNRP, from returning to Cambodia.”
Mr. Rainsy has been living abroad—based in France but often traveling elsewhere seeking foreign support—to avoid a two-year prison sentence and a slew of criminal lawsuits against him, all widely believed to be politically motivated.
The letter references a prior meeting of top aviation officials, representatives of airlines operating in Cambodia, heads of the country’s three international airports, Phnom Penh International Airport immigration police, custom and excise officials, and Soy Sokhan, undersecretary of state at the Secretariat of Civil Aviation.
“The meeting took the following measures: First, all airlines operating flights to Cambodia must not allow this person to board a flight to Cambodia,” the letter said, adding that the airlines should also tell the government if “this individual buys a plane ticket to travel to Cambodia.”
“Second, in cases where the individual Sam Rainsy travels to Cambodia by any plane, that plane will be diverted back to the original airport without allowing it to land in Cambodia.”
“Third, in case the aircraft carrying the individual Sam Rainsy has landed at any airport in Cambodia, passengers will not be allowed to leave the plane and it will be ordered to return to the original airport.”
“Fourth, in case this person is let out of the plane, immigration police shall take legal action to prevent this person from entering Cambodia and take other measures as necessary.”
General Sok Phal confirmed that he received the letter, but said he had yet to discuss it with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
“For this letter, I already checked with my administration, it was sent to me,” he said Friday. “But I want to say today that I did not join this meeting.”
“I will get the opinion from my minister because this letter did not go through the [Interior] Ministry’s minister,” he added, declining to comment further.
Civil Aviation Secretariat spokesman Sinn Chanserey Vutha said he had not heard of the policy.
“If the government says it’s not allowed, it’s not allowed,” he said, declining further comment.
Mr. Rainsy could not be reached for comment, but said on Wednesday in a Facebook video that he was ready to come home and face imprisonment if the government would guarantee the release of what he said were 20 or 30 political prisoners in the country.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP member, said on Friday that he hadn’t seen the letter, but that Mr. Rainsy was not plotting an imminent return.
“I don’t believe he will come back anytime soon,” he said. “It’s just another way to tell Sam Rainsy that he shouldn’t come back anyway.”
The prince said he was part of a minority within the party who wanted Mr. Rainsy to return to put pressure on the CPP and “just to see what they will do.”
Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has been living at the CNRP’s headquarters since being charged in relation to a “prostitution” case in late May, said in an interview earlier this month that he would like Mr. Rainsy to return.
Political analyst Meas Ny said the outright ban on Mr. Rainsy’s return betrayed the frayed nerves of the ruling party and the prime minister.
“They are afraid of many things,” he said.
“If Sam Rainsy is in the country and they arrest him, the opposition will become more influential…. They could establish the big gathering and [the authorities] could not control it.”
By keeping Mr. Rainsy at bay, Mr. Hun Sen was drawing from a familiar playbook in trying to splinter the opposition before the election, according to Mr. Ny.
“They never want Sam Rainsy to be back,” he said.