Sam Rainsy’s Return—Will He or Won’t He?

There was no ambiguity in opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s announcement on Saturday that he is coming back to Cambodia before the national election on July 28, and promising to sacrifice his life to “rescue the nation from destruction.”

But Mr. Rainsy has a history of mak­ing—and breaking—pledges.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rainsy said his party would boycott the national election if a series of reforms were not made to the country’s electoral system, including the creation of a new voter list and restructuring of the National Election Committee (NEC), which is currently stacked with members of the CPP.

–News Analysis

In the end, the opposition Cam­bodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) registered for the election on May 10, three days before the deadline and without the NEC heeding any of the opposition’s demands.

In the wake of the last national election in 2008, Mr. Rainsy claimed opposition members of Parliament would not validate the newly formed National Assembly in protest at what he said were flawed election results. However, after the NEC said that the opposition’s seats would be redistributed to other political parties, Mr. Rainsy and his colleagues complied.

In 2005, Mr. Rainsy, who was living abroad to avoid an 18-month prison sentence for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, began legal proceedings against Mr. Hun Sen in a New York court over allegations the premier was linked to the 1997 grenade attack that killed about a dozen people outside the former National Assembly building.

Mr. Rainsy later withdrew from the court investigation and was allowed return to Cambodia without facing prison thanks to a letter to Mr. Hun Sen apologizing for linking him to the grenade attack, and a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.

No political deal has so far been reached this time around to allow Mr. Rainsy return to without serving his sentence of 11 years in prison on charges that he claims were politically motivated.

Police authorities have also promised to arrest him should he return to the country.

“Now he has a dilemma,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International.

“One choice is to come and get all the support from his supporters, but…there is a risk that he could be arrested by the court. So he has to make a decision about which one would be best for him and his party and his supporters,” he said.

Mam Sonando, who faced a similar situation to Mr. Rainsy when he returned to the country in July 2012 facing accusations of leading a secessionist movement, and for which he spent several months in prison, said that despite the seeming sincerity of Mr. Rainsy’s message, it is difficult to know if his return is truly imminent.

“I am only 50/50,” said Mr. Sonando of the likelihood that Mr. Rainsy will actually return. “If he wants to win the election, he has to come back.”

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Me­dia Studies, said that he doubted Mr. Rainsy would return without reaching a sort of political truce similar to his apology and pardon in 2005.

“He [Mr. Rainsy] is still being tactical about his return. I am still not certain that Sam Rainsy will return without any promise [from the government] or obstacles being cleared,” he said.

After having repeatedly said he would return to Cambodia since he left the country in 2009, independent political analyst Chea Vannath said that many of Mr. Rainsy’s supporters rightly remain skeptical of his latest promised return.

“He has said that so many times that he has received a lot of negative feedback that he has not followed through, which means that he has lost the confidence of some of his supporters,” said Ms. Vannath, adding that she thought Mr. Rainsy’s latest pledge seemed more sincere than usual.

“I think that he went through a lot of mental struggle within himself before he said that he will come back. Maybe this one is more than a bluff,” she said.

Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said that although Mr. Rainsy has disappointed his supporters in the past, the stakes have never been this high.

“It’s hard to believe he will come because he usually announces his return again and again and finally he doesn’t come,” he said.

“But then again, it may be possible because he sees the very big number of people who have joined the CNRP campaign and has been inspired by the big number of supporters he will gain when the ruling party arrests him and the media will cover all the news about him and it can really benefit the opposition,” he said.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that the party was still deciding on the best time for Mr. Rainsy to make his return.

Whatever Mr. Rainsy decides, he must surely be aware that this is a defining moment in his political career, said Thida Khus, chairwoman of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics.

“If he is not coming, that is the end of politics for him,” she added.

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