Malaysia’s government released the No. 2 official of a banned Cambodian opposition party and two other activists on Thursday in a surprise U-turn that could bolster plans by other political exiles to return to their homeland in a challenge to an autocratic leader.
But Thailand remained firm in barring Cambodian opposition activists from transiting through the country, with flag carrier Thai Airways refusing to let prominent leader Sam Rainsy board a flight from Paris to Bangkok.
The Cambodia opposition, led by Sam Rainsy, who heads the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party, said they want to spark a popular movement to oust long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has clamped down on his opponents.
Malaysian Human Rights Commission member Jerald Joseph said authorities released the party’s vice president, Mu Sochua, and two of its youth activists. The move was unexpected because Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad earlier said Malaysia doesn’t want to be used as a base for political activists or interfere in the affairs of other countries.
Joseph said the three will be allowed to remain in the country but couldn’t provide further details. The commission was involved in appeals for their release. Mu Sochua, who has a U.S. passport, was detained upon landing at Kuala Lumpur’s airport Wednesday night and the other two on Monday.
A member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Teddy Baguilat, welcomed their release and urged Thailand to follow Malaysia’s example by allowing Sam Rainsy to enter Thailand.
“Hun Sen should get the message loud and clear that his persecution of the political opposition will not be exported wherever he wishes it to be,” Baguilat said in a statement. He also urged Cambodia to release dozens of activists held on trumped-up political charges and allow legitimate dissent.
In Paris where he lives in exile, an angry Sam Rainsy told reporters at Charles De Gaulle Airport that Thai Airways “said they had received from very high up the instruction to not allow me to board.”
He blamed pressure from “dictator” Hun Sen. He vowed he wouldn’t be cowed and said he plans to return via another neighboring country.
“Never, never will I abandon. We need to continue, the days of Hun Sen are numbered. Democracy will be reinstalled in the near future. It’s our conviction and our determination,” he said.
Earlier before heading to the airport, Rainsy told The Associated Press that Hun Sen is going all out to block their return because he is “very afraid.”
“I think this is the most favorable circumstances because the Cambodian people really want a change,” he said. He said his party has to lead “this fight for freedom and I’m sure that there are many friends all over the world who will help us in our rightful battle.”
Cambodian officials have repeatedly warned that if the opposition leaders make it back, they will be immediately arrested. Most if not all have convictions or charges pending against them in Cambodian courts, including inciting armed rebellion, despite their avowedly nonviolent intentions.
Human Rights Watch earlier urged Malaysia to “stand up to Cambodia’s bullying of its regional neighbors and (not) do Phnom Penh’s dirty work in cracking down against the CNRP exiles.”
The party was dissolved by court order in late 2017, allowing Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to sweep a 2018 general election. Cambodian courts are widely considered to be under the influence of the government, which employs the law to harass its opponents.
Hours before Mu Sochua’s detention in Malaysia, the Cambodian Embassy in Indonesia called for her arrest after she gave a news conference in Jakarta. Cambodian Ambassador Hor Nambora interrupted that news conference to describe the opposition politicians as fugitives and criminals.
“We are risking our lives, we will go to Cambodia empty handed,” Mu Sochua said. “Returning home for democracy in Cambodia, it’s not a revolution, it’s not a coup d’etat.”