Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia on Tuesday to take up his position as leader of the parliamentary opposition. The fiery government critic was greeted by hundreds of supporters—and by a large police presence that prevented him from carrying out much of his planned agenda.
Police barred Sam Rainsy from laying commemorative wreaths at the National Assembly and Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana, sites where supporters have died during the past two years.
At least 10 armed officers blocked entry to Pochentong Airport—keeping journalists from meeting Sam Rainsy as is customary for returning dignitaries. Numbers of police lined the routes to and at his scheduled stops, including a row of Flying Tiger police that briefly clashed with his cheering motorcycle entourage at the intersection of Pochentong and Monivong boulevards.
There were unconfirmed reports of injuries caused by police beating Sam Rainsy supporters with clubs and electric batons.
Sam Rainsy said he returned because “I had to take up my duty as an MP.” The National Assembly’s opening session is scheduled to begin today.
He also confirmed what most assumed since the CPP-Funcinpec coalition deal was struck: that he would stay out of government to lead the first official opposition Cambodia has seen in decades.
“I hope [the deal works],” Sam Rainsy said after a ceremony at Wat Botum. “For the good of the country, I hope so. I am a little bit skeptical, but I will try my best to help so that it works well. I will do what is best for the country without asking anything for myself.”
Sam Rainsy’s party has 15 seats in the 122-member parliament.
The party’s namesake returned Tuesday without the guarantees against arrest he had demanded.
An Interior Ministry official said the heavy police presence that greeted Sam Rainsy almost everywhere he went Tuesday was for the opposition figure’s protection. “Security is guaranteed for all Assembly members,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for Interior. “It is our duty to provide him security. We are highly concerned about his security.”
He said the crowd of Sam Rainsy supporters was dispersed at Monivong Boulevard because of the possibility someone in the crowd of supporters meant the opposition leader harm.
But Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Rich Garella said the heavy police presence was “grossly violating the Constitution.”
Moto-taxi driver Nnanh Neang was part of the dispersed crowd. “I think the police are as mean and nasty as watchdogs,” he said. “We were driving on the street only. We did not act against the law at all, but still those police dispersed us while we were happily driving alongside Sam Rainsy. That street does not belong to anybody, even Hun Sen.”
Rights workers said they were following up on reports of violence and voiced concern about the large police presence and restrictions of freedom of assembly for the Sam Rainsy Party.
From the airport, Sam Rainsy went to Wat Botum, where he met a small group of supporters. “I miss you very much,” yelled one old woman as he arrived.
However, Sam Rainsy was not allowed to cross the park across from Wat Botum and lay a wreath in front of the National Assembly to commemorate supporters killed in anti-government demonstrations at the site. At least 17 Sam Rainsy supporters died in a grenade attack on a rally he led March 30, 1997. The park was also the site of the post-election protests broken up by the government in September.
Dozens of police were in the park between Wat Botum and the Assembly—armed with riot gear, batons and guns. They said they were there in preparation of the opening of the National Assembly on Wednesday, not to interfere with Sam Rainsy.
Sam Rainsy’s next stop was party headquarters on Sothearos Boulevard, where he spoke in the courtyard. He then went on to the Cambodiana, where police again kept him from laying a wreath for a supporter who died in a demonstration outside the hotel in September.
That protest came while Sam Rainsy, fearing arrest after threats by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, was under the protection of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s representative.
Sam Rainsy said later Tuesday that he would not make another attempt to lay a wreath. “I don’t want to be provocative,” he said, adding the treatment he and his supporters received Tuesday proves that human rights in Cambodia “are still a dream.”
The statement issued by the party late Tuesday night said, “The regime demonstrated that in Cambodia, it is the police that rule the streets, not the people.”
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia one day after being sworn in as a parliamentarian Sept 24, the same day as a grenade attack on the CPP convoy Hun Sen blamed on the opposition. Sam Rainsy was abroad for two months because of fears for his safety. He said these fears have been allayed and that he was mostly concerned for his supporters.
“I have done nothing wrong,” he said as he exited Wat Botum. “So if they say that this is a state of law I have nothing to fear, but if they do what they want using the judiciary as a political tool to crack down on political opponents, then that can be a source of concern. But as an MP I have parliamentary immunity so I have not much fear.”
I have some concerns for the security of my colleagues who are not MPs and have no parliamentary immunity.
He said that eight Sam Rainsy MPs are currently in Cambodia. Three remain in the US and another four are in France because they were unable to buy their plane tickets in time.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)