A phalanx of police prevented outspoken Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay from boarding a Tuesday morning flight to Jakarta, where he was to chair a conference of the Asian Liberals and Democrats, a left-leaning group viewed by some regional governments as opposition troublemakers.
Son Chhay said officers at Pochentong Airport told him they had orders from a “high official” not to let him leave the country, but Interior and Foreign Affairs ministry officials said Tuesday the legislator was trying to travel on an invalid passport.
“This isn’t political. It’s a matter of paperwork,” said Seng Socheat, secretary for Long Visalo, who is a secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry.
With his Cambodian diplomatic passport due to expire Friday, Son Chhay said he submitted a renewal application last week to the Foreign Ministry.
But Seng Socheat said he only received the application Tuesday morning from the ministry’s consular department, and that Long Visalo had been too busy to approve it.
Son Chhay has accused the ministry of dragging its feet, asking, “How can we go on missions? This is a political technique.”
Without his Cambodian passport, Son Chhay said he tried to travel Tuesday on his Australian passport.
But according to Meach Sophanna, director of the Interior Ministry’s Foreign Department, this passport was invalid because there was no record of arrivals or departures.
“If he uses the Australian passport more often the police can recognize it, but there’s no visa on it, so it’s difficult for officials to allow him to use it,” Meach Sophanna said. “He’s a lawmaker, but he’s violating the law.”
Meach Sophanna also said that while Son Chhay’s Cambodian passport was technically valid until the end of the week, he should have renewed it earlier in order to use it Tuesday.
Seng Socheat said Long Visalo finally approved Son Chhay’s Cambodian passport renewal Tuesday, though it was after he was to have left for Jakarta. Son Chhay said he expects to fly out today, but will have to turn over the opening of the conference to another attendee.
He brushed aside the government’s reasons for his delayed departure, saying instead that he was being indirectly punished for his criticisms of government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The government is afraid [of the opposition getting stronger] and it tries to harass us,” he said.
Son Chhay has frequently been the target of what some claim are anti-opposition tactics. In September 2001, he was fired as chair of the only Sam Rainsy Party-led commission in the National Assembly.
In December 2001 he was suspended from the assembly for 15 days after clashing with assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.