Hun Sen’s game of political chicken: Time for Rainsy to act

Hun Sen lifted the travel ban on Sam Rainsy but his return may not be a blessing for the CNRP.

By Oliver Ward

Hun Sen has called Sam Rainsy’s bluff and lifted his travel ban. The move dares Rainsy to put his strong words into actions. The former leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been living abroad in exile since 2015.

The Law on Political Parties would still prevent Sam Rainsy from resuming his old post as leader of the CNRP. The law states that convicts with a criminal record cannot lead a political party. He will be allowed back in the country but still faces defamation charges and could be arrested once he comes back.

The high-profile game of chicken in Cambodian politics

The decision to lift the travel ban on Rainsy came after an interview with the RFA Khmer Service. Rainsy called on Hun Sen to lift the travel ban. He said that he would “dare to be imprisoned and even face death…. So long as our nation can live”.

From exile, Sam Rainsy has been calling Hun Sen out. “Hun Sen is scared of me, scared of my name, scared of my voice, scared of my shadow.”

Hun Sen called him on his bluff. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesmen Soy Ey San, said “Everyone heard that he [Sam Rainsy] is not afraid.”, “So now, he may return by boarding any plane he likes”. Hun Sen added “Look! Brave man. The door is open”.

Has this backfired for Sam Rainsy?

Sam Rainsy has a choice. He either returns to Cambodia where he could be arrested on old defamation charges, or, he stays in exile, leading Hun Sen to win and will be able to openly call him a coward.

Rainsy said in an interview back in June “if the unconstitutional ban forbidding all airlines from carrying me to Cambodia is lifted I will be in my native country in a matter of hours”. However, now he has already backtracked, adding that he will return “when there is a guarantee that paves the way for me to return, to walk on Cambodian land”.

It seems that now Rainsy is confronted with the reality of return, he wants more assurances that he will not be arrested. His appetite for martyrdom is waning.

Will his return benefit the CNRP?

The CNRP did well in the latest commune elections. The CPP’s percentage of the popular vote was slashed from 62% in 2012 to 50% this year. The CNRP themselves rose from 30% of the vote in 2012 to nearly 44% – an impressive feat in democratically unsound elections. Their support in urban areas is also rising rapidly. They want to continue the momentum into the general election next year.

The leadership of the CNRP is strong and do not need Sam Rainsy back. Hun Sen knows this and wants to divide the opposition. He knows that if Rainsy were to return and be imprisoned, this would hurt Hun Sen’s popularity. Rainsy would then be made a martyr and celebrated. Hun Sen would prefer to see him return and not be put in prison. He still could not be made leader. His presence in the country would divide the opposition and undermine Kem Sokha’s leadership.

Hun Sen and Rainsy remain locked in a game of chicken. By calling his bluff, Hun Sen has put Rainsy in a difficult situation. Should he return to Cambodia and potentially jeopardise the successes of the CNRP before the 2018 general election or stay in Paris and be exposed as a coward? His next move will be key.