Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said on Thursday he had no plans to apologize to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong for accusing him of helping to run a Khmer Rouge prison camp in the 1970s, even if it would help him return to Cambodia without facing prison.
A longtime mediator for Prime Minister Hun Sen had said on Wednesday that Mr. Rainsy might be able to secure a return without facing a two-year jail term for defaming Mr. Namhong if he wrote an apology. In an email on Thursday evening, the opposition leader rejected that suggestion.
“It is Hor Namhong who should apologise to the souls and the families of the victims who got killed by the Khmer Rouge at the Boeng Trabek prison in the late 1970s because he acted as a Kapo and denounced them to their torturers and killers,” Mr. Rainsy wrote.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Namhong told reporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building that there was a chance he would accept an apology from Mr. Rainsy, with whom he has sparred for years over the role he played while interned at the Khmer Rouge prison camp.
“We will wait and see in the future, and I cannot answer immediately,” Mr. Namhong said.
Mr. Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, arrived in the morning in Manila, where a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was being held, announcing that they were taking the opportunity to argue their case to world leaders there.
“We have scheduled to meet with the leaders of some important countries to instruct them about the political situation in Cambodia, in which there is a serious crisis,” Mr. Sokha wrote on his Facebook page.
Mr. Rainsy initially pledged to return to Phnom Penh on Monday, as scheduled, to face the two-year prison sentence, but he changed his mind hours before his scheduled arrival, saying he would instead return at an unspecified later date.
Senior CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang has since said Mr. Rainsy would like to negotiate a settlement with Prime Minister Hun Sen to let him to return free of his criminal defamation conviction, which he had believed was expunged by the royal pardon that let him return in early July 2013.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said on Thursday that he was not concerned that another extended period of self-imposed exile by Mr. Rainsy would make Cambodia’s political system appear less democratic.
“The Cambodian people and our democratic system do not rely on Sam Rainsy,” Mr. Siphan said.
“In the absence of Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha can lead his CNRP colleagues, like before. Sam Rainsy just came to Cambodia a few days before the election but their number of seats increased. You should give credit to the CNRP as a whole, not only to one person,” he said.
“Maybe they can give a change to the people who support the CNRP. Why is it only Sam Rainsy? Why? It’s not only him: Pol Ham, Son Chhay, Mu Sochua—they have a lot of good people,” Mr. Siphan said, listing senior lawmakers in the party.
“What if Sam Rainsy had a heart attack tomorrow? Would you abolish the CNRP?” he added. “Life goes on.”
Sam Inn, the secretary-general of the Grassroots Democracy Party, a new party established this year as an alternative to the CNRP, said that Mr. Rainsy’s only choice was to return and go to jail or else face a crisis of credibility among supporters.
“Sam Rainsy has failed again and again and I do not think he can lead change in Cambodia if he is not going to face [prison]. If he would like to change Cambodia as promised, he has to come back and face it. He cannot always just run away,” Mr. Inn said.
“If you can see the history of Nelson Mandela, if you can see the history of Mahatma Gandhi, if you see the history of Aung San Suu Kyi, they put pressure on the powerful people because they were willing to face challenges and stand with their people.”
A return by Mr. Rainsy to face his jail sentence would be a win-win situation for him, forcing Mr. Hun Sen either to give up his bluff or else deal with the consequences of jailing an opposition leader, said Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank.
“For one, he will definitely become the hero and a democracy icon. The comparisons with Aung San Suu Kyi would be more legitimate after that. It will have a great impact,” Mr. Virak said. “Sitting in jail will make him a democracy icon and a national hero.”
“His supporters will have a lot more energy after that and Hun Sen will be forced to do something, because the leader of opposition is in jail. If he is not going to be put in jail, then Hun Sen would be exposed—it would show his vulnerabilities and weaknesses,” he said.
Yet Prince Sisowath Thomico, the only member of the royal family who is openly a CNRP member, said that Mr. Rainsy was correctly focusing on the party’s best interests ahead of his own image.
“I believe that he should not come back and should not forge a deal. On the contrary, he should strengthen the CNRP and figure out a strategy to win the coming elections,” Prince Thomico said.
“No deal can be forged under pressure because negotiations can only take place when the parties concerned are on the same footing, which is not the case now,” he said.
“I am tired of hearing comparisons made between Cambodia and Myanmar. We are not in the same situation,” Prince Thomico added. “Sam Rainsy should not think of becoming a hero. He should have only one thought: how to win the elections.”
It was a view shared by another opposition veteran, Son Soubert, the son of former resistance leader Son Sann, who said Mr. Rainsy was being wise not to give Mr. Hun Sen any pretext to delay the 2018 national election.
“If there is an arrangement for him to come, it is safer for him. If his supporters are still strongly trying to show their opposition to the ruling party, there is a risk they could be provoked into clashes. He’s being cautious not to give any chance,” Mr. Soubert said.
Although opinions about whether Mr. Rainsy should return or not remain split, the notion that his absence could weaken the CNRP’s strength in its run to the 2017 commune elections and 2018 election is one that crosses the divide.
Tep Vanny, a prominent activist who has been repeatedly imprisoned in recent years due to her fierce street protests, said Mr. Rainsy must come back to show leadership in the fight against Mr. Hun Sen.
“His supporters want to see his bravery and for him to inspire us. He should bear the suffering and happiness with his supporters and his activists in the country, rather than running away,” she said.
“We want our leader to be courageous and brave like Aung San Suu Kyi. If he faces jail or even sacrifices his life, it would make his supporters and activists sacrifice everything for change in this country.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy and Mech Dara)