Southeast Asian countries are helping Cambodia’s PM round up dissidents

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends an ASEAN leaders summit with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in Bangkok, Thailand November 3, 2019. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

By Philip J. Heijmans

(Bloomberg) — Southeast Asian countries are helping Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen prevent dissidents from trying to return to the country just before the European Union is set to decide whether to maintain trade privileges for the country’s biggest industry.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, along with party leader Sam Rainsy and an undisclosed number of other dissidents, were planning to return on Saturday after four years in exile. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has threatened to deploy the military and “use weapons of all kinds” to stop them.

Malaysian authorities detained Mu Sochua on Thursday for entering the country on a U.S. passport, while Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said during a speech he had ordered customs to not allow Sam Rainsy into the country, saying he was following “rules” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Video posted to social media purportedly shows Cambodian police massing and carrying out exercises on the Thai border in preparation for the repatriation.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Cambodia’s government, said he heard about the arrests through the media and it would be “positive” if true.

“The Cambodian government has informed all Asean nations that those people are organised crime,” Phay Siphan said. “They are leading a coup d’tat, so the Cambodian government informed all Asean members. And they all decided together to keep peace stability, so those people have become persona non-grata.”

During a press conference in Jakarta on Wednesday to announce her plans to return to Cambodia, Mu Sochua was interrupted by Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Hor Nambora, who barged into the event uninvited saying it was “illegal.” In a letter published on social media on Wednesday, Sam Rainsy pleaded with Prayuth to grant him safe passage through Thailand.

Extraordinary scenes at a Jakarta press conference where Cambodian ambassador to indonesia first tries to shut down a press conference by Cambodia’s deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua and then takes the microphone

— amanda hodge (@hodgeamanda) November 6, 2019

My request “is based on my responsibility to those supporters who have suffered so much, and to all Cambodians, who deserve a chance at a democratic debate over the future of their society,” Rainsy wrote.

“The CPP is clearly scared,” Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, referring to the prime minister’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party. “It is worried about a repeat of what happened before the national election in 2013, when Rainsy was mobbed on his return to the country by hundreds of thousands of supporters. I think they are also paranoid that the U.S. and other Western governments might pull a Venezuela, and throw their support behind the opposition in the event of a large-scale uprising.”

The detention comes less than a week since the arrival of newly appointed EU Ambassador to Cambodia, Carmen Moreno. Europe is expected to imminently present a decision on whether or not to pull Cambodia’s preferential tariff status due to its deteriorating rights situation, a move that could devastate its economy. The EU is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45% of all exports in 2018.

In mid-August, the EU announced it had completed its investigation into the country’s increasingly authoritarian behavior and would decide on trade sanctions within three months that could impact its $5 billion garment industry. Employing 750,000 people, Cambodia’s garment sector is reliant on the EU as its biggest exporter.

”Over the last eighteen months, we have seen the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia,” Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini wrote in a press release launching the procedure to temporarily suspend trade preferences in February under the Everything but Arms initiative.

Hun Sen last month arrived in central Europe to build support from like-minded leaders there. But he’s also contending with growing unrest from skyrocketing micro-finance debt that has left millions of people at risk of losing their homes.

“A large part of the CNRP’s strategy is to goad Hun Sen into overreactions that will force the EU to pull Cambodia’s preferential access to the European market,” said Strangio. “The ultimate impact depends on what transpires from here. A violent crackdown or an arrest of Rainsy would almost certainly seal Cambodia’s EBA fate, but the Cambodian government is taking actions to ensure that this won’t happen.”

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.