Cambodia warns of coup as neighbours detain exiles
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Cambodia warns of coup as neighbours detain exiles

Cambodia's self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, who has vowed to return to his home country, talks to supporters after being prevented from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok at Roissy Airport in Paris on Thursday. (Reuters photo)
Cambodia's self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, who has vowed to return to his home country, talks to supporters after being prevented from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok at Roissy Airport in Paris on Thursday. (Reuters photo)

SINGAPORE: Cambodia has sent troops to its border and called on neighbouring countries to arrest exiled dissidents after accusing them of plotting a coup as the European Union reviews trade privileges that are essential to the economy.

Malaysian authorities on Thursday detained Mu Sochua, vice-president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, at Kuala Lumpur airport following a request from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.

The Cambodian leader, in power since 1985, has promised to "use weapons of all kinds" to stop a group led by top opposition figure Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia on Saturday, the country’s independence day.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters Malaysia was looking for a country that would take in Mu Sochua, noting Malaysia did not want to interfere with the internal affairs of other Asean members.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered customs to deny Sam Rainsy’s entry due to Asean "rules". On Thursday, he posted a picture of himself packing his bags as he prepared to board a plane from Paris to Bangkok. Both he and Mu Sochua have been in exile for four years.

A Thai Airways employee told AP Sam Rainsy was not allowed to board a flight from Paris to Bangkok because his booking was not valid.

The employee of the Thai flag carrier at Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport, who answered a telephone call but declined to give his name, said a valid ticket had not been issued in Sam Rainsy's name and the economy class section for Thursday's flight was full. He said a booking in Sam Rainsy's name had been made for a new flight on Saturday.

Sam Rainsy had posted a photo on his Facebook page of what he said was his ticket which showed he had a confirmed booking for the Thursday flight. The photo also showed his booking reference and ticket number, opening the possibility that it could be changed online by a third party.

He told reporters at the airport that Thai Airways "said they had received from very high up the instruction to not allow me to board''.

Cambodia has despatched the military to "maintain peace and stability", government spokesman Phay Siphan said, adding that the arrests would be "positive" if true.

"The Cambodian government has informed all Asean nations that those people are organised crime," he said. "They are leading a coup d’etat, 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."

The detention comes shortly before Europe is expected to issue 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.

Trade decision

In mid-August, the EU announced it had completed its investigation into the country’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour and would decide on trade sanctions under its Everything but Arms initiative within three months. Cambodia’s $5-billion garment sector employs 750,000 people and the EU is its biggest market.

"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 Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, referring to the opposition party. "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."

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.

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 Gen Prayut to grant him safe passage through Thailand.

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," Sam Rainsy wrote. On Sept 26, a Phnom Penh court charged eight leading members of the CNRP with attempting to stage a coup.

According to a statement published by Human Rights Watch on Thursday, the Cambodian authorities have arrested 92 suspected CNRP activists and others on various charges, including plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony, and discrediting judicial decisions since Sam Rainsy announced in August that he would return to Cambodia.

"The CPP is clearly scared," said Mr Strangio, 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 US and other Western governments might pull a Venezuela, and throw their support behind the opposition in the event of a large-scale uprising."

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