It’s easy to be the authoritarian leader of a poor agricultural nation when your chief opponent lives in an apartment near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Prime Minister Hun Sen has learned over the past decade.
Though he was allowed to return to legitimize elections in 2008 and 2013, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has only lived in the country for about half of the past 10 years.
It’s a painful truth for Mr. Rainsy. Only six days before he last fled threats of arrest on November 16, he was comparing his fight to that of Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who endured house arrest for 15 years instead of fleeing.
“He can’t take pride in himself as an equal to Aung San Suu Kyi. If he wants to be like her, he should be in prison for 20 years,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the day Mr. Rainsy again fled into exile.
“In simple terms, he’s a coward.”
Six months on, Mr. Rainsy’s decision to flee back to France stands in stark contrast to deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha’s refusal to back down from the CPP after armed police attempted to arrest him last week for failing to turn up for court questioning.
Mr. Sokha avoided that arrest attempt and has since then made no secret of his whereabouts, holed up in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters with his party promising mass demonstrations in the capital if the government follows through on its arrest threats.
“He’s not scared of anything,” CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang told supporters keeping vigil outside CNRP headquarters on Tuesday.
“There’s nothing to be scared of, because Kem Sokha is not going anywhere,” he added.
However, it was Mr. Chhay Eang himself who Mr. Rainsy claimed in November had convinced him not to return to Cambodia, warning of the risk that the CPP would use ensuing protests to delay crucial election preparations.
On November 16, Mr. Rainsy said, Mr. Chhay Eang led a meeting of lawmakers that “ended with a unanimous recommendation to me to delay my return in light of possible violence that some elements of the CPP would have created as soon as my plane landed.”
“What would another Cambodian opposition leader have decided on his return that day under such circumstances if he claims to be responsible?” Mr. Rainsy asked in an op-ed last month defending his decision.
In an email on Wednesday, Mr. Rainsy added that all major party decisions, such as how to respond to the arrest threats against him and Mr. Sokha, were approved by both leaders.
“Since the formation of our party in 2012, Kem Sokha and I have always jointly taken any important decisions, and we will continue to do so in order to preserve its future and to ensure its success,” he said.
Mr. Sokha is presently not giving interviews, and Kem Monovithya, his daughter and the CNRP’s deputy public affairs chief, did not respond to requests for comment about her father’s present thinking.
Other CNRP lawmakers were reticent to comment on their leaders’ divergent approaches to threats of arrest.
“I don’t want to comment on their behalf. They have different ways of dealing with the situation, and I am not in a position to judge which one is better than the other,” said senior lawmaker Son Chhay.
Two of Mr. Rainsy’s lawmakers are also presently behind bars. CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An was arrested upon returning from the U.S. in April, while Senator Hong Sok Hour has been in languishing in jail since August, both for Facebook posts.
It is not the first time Mr. Rainsy has remained abroad while others in his opposition party have been jailed by Mr. Hun Sen.
In August 2005, opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy was sentenced to seven years in jail on sedition charges for allegedly trying to create his own military.
Four months later, Mr. Rainsy was found guilty of defaming Mr. Hun Sen and fled to France again, remaining there until he cut a deal to return freely.
The same month, a slew of civil society members were also put behind bars amid a crackdown. Mr. Sokha, then a popular NGO leader, was one of them. He was jailed after Mr. Hun Sen sued him for defamation over a banner he held at a protest for human rights, remaining imprisoned until January 2006.
But Buntenh, an outspoken monk who leads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha had always taken different approaches to opposing Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
“Sam Rainsy has played politics for a long time, so he does not want to get arrested without benefit. I have seen Sam Rainsy’s statements that it’s meaningless to be in jail because he could not do anything,” he said.
“Kem Sokha has a different personality, and different thoughts. He believes that if there are no sacrifices, there will be no change. He is committed. If the government wants to arrest, he welcomes it.”
Mr. Sokha is also no stranger to the CPP’s deep-seated ways of thinking, having served as a commune official in Phnom Penh for its post-Khmer Rouge regime. He later became a clandestine member of former Prime Minister Son Sann’s resistance movement.
Son Soubert, the son of Son Sann and a prominent member of the opposition, said he believed Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy had made the right decisions based on their strengths.
“Kem Sokha is more of a figure of the interior, and Sam Rainsy is well known internationally, so it’s good that they share this responsibilities,” Mr. Soubert said.
“One can go outside and denounce the dictatorship in Cambodia, and the way they want to avoid the commune elections and the legislative elections, while the other can stand up inside,” he added.
In the end, Mr. Hun Sen’s government would like nothing more than to have Mr. Sokha take a page from Mr. Rainsy’s playbook and flee the arrest threats, said But Buntenh.
“In reality, if Kem Sokha was away from the country—if he ran away from political pressure—the CPP would be very happy with that. This is the scenario the CPP wants,” he said.
“It is their game. And he understands their game. That’s why he is here.”