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Asia

Cambodian opposition leader stares down jail threat

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy is set to be arrested tonight, having vowed to return from South Korea to face a warrant issued on Friday. David Boyle reports from Phnom Penh.

Rainsy was stripped of his lawmaker status and parliamentary immunity this morning by the National Assembly's ruling party dominated standing committee, paving the way for his arrest. A special commission has been formulated to ensure the opposition leader is apprehended.

Following a wave of intimidation directed at the opposition that included the bashing of two of their MPs outside of parliament last month, Rainsy infuriated Prime Minister Hun Sen by suggesting the democratic transition that has swept Myanmar would soon be replicated in Cambodia.

The premier promptly warned on Thursday, November 12, that he would jail Rainsy and a day later the Phnom Penh Municipal court issued an arrest warrant for a long dormant verdict in a seven-year-old defamation case.

Workers run away after clashes broke out during a protest in Phnom Penh January 3, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring)

Cambodia could be heading for yet another violent chapter

"Cambodia is my homeland and my motherland, and I absolutely have to come back in order to save our country," The Cambodia Daily reported the Cambodia National Rescue Party leader as having told a rally in South Korea on Saturday.

A risky gambit

In seeking Rainsy's arrest, Hun Sen appeared to have wagered that opposition leader, who has twice used his French citizenship to self-exile himself from charges before, would shirk from the prospect of jail.

"Before, you always escaped from the country, and I asked for pardons to be granted for [Rainsy] two times already. This time, I hope that His Excellency will not be able to escape," Hun Sen said on Thursday, according to The Phnom Penh Post.

It's a risky gambit, because if Rainsy is jailed while the world's attention is still strongly focused on democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's stunning electoral victory in Myanmar, the comparisons he has drawn with her plight will resonate to a captive audience.

The two year sentence would also see Rainsy emerge from prison shortly before slated elections in 2018 – providing the opposition leader with an ideal stage to ramp up sympathy and support right before a ballot.

When Rainsy was granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen's behest after threatening to return to face charges before the 2013 elections, some 100,000 people greeted him at the airport and support for his party in the subsequent ballot surged dramatically.

Political Analyst and Future Forum think tank founder Ou Virak said that though it still remained to be seen if Rainsy would actually return, Hun Sen had put himself in an unfavorable position.

"If he is to return, I think he's calling Hun Sen's bluff. I think the pressure is on Hun Sen. I think they will have to discuss and come to a compromise exposing Hun Sen's weakness," he said.

"Will this change everything? Yes it will change quite a bit," Virak added.

International condemnation

While the impact of the two leaders' next steps is most significant domestically, Hun Sen is also gambling with the greatly prized legitimacy that he has always sought from the international community.

Indeed, the very truce that is now at threat of collapse, dubbed "the culture of dialogue," was negotiated to legitimize parliament by securing opposition participation.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (2nd R) shakes hands with Sam Rainsy (2nd L), president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after a meeting at the Senate in central Phnom Penh July 22, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Cambodia's two main parties agreed on a 'culture of dialogue' last year

Both the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United States embassy in Phnom Penh were quick to condemn the attacks last month and US State Department has now taken that rhetoric further.

"The timing of these charges gives the appearance of undue political influence in the judicial process," State Department spokesman Mark Toner was reported by Reuters news agency as having said in Washington on Friday.

"More broadly, the pattern of actions against the opposition suggests a return to the harsh political practices and tactics that the Cambodia people have made clear they no longer want."

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh has also issued a travel warning to US citizens living in Cambodia or traveling to the country ahead of Rainsy's possible return.

In response to mass demonstrations that plunged Cambodia into a period of political turmoil following the allegedly rigged 2013 elections, authorities resorted to batons and bullets.

If a new political truce cannot be brokered, Cambodia could be heading for yet another violent chapter.