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Cambodia warns of coup as Southeast Asian neighbors detain exiles

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/7/2019 Philip J. Heijmans

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Cambodia has sent troops to its border and called on neighboring 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.

a man standing in front of a crowd: Key Speakers at Future of Asia Conference © Bloomberg Key Speakers at Future of Asia Conference

Hun Sen

After Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad initially told reporters Malaysia was looking for a country that would take in Mu Sochua, local media quoted Immigration Department director general Khairul Dzaimee Daud on Thursday evening as saying she was now permitted to enter Malaysia.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha 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, however Associated Press reported he was prevented from boarding the flight. Both Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua have been in exile for four years.

“We welcome the Malaysian authorities’ decision to allow Mu Sochua, as well as Cambodian youth activists Keith Ngoeum and Seang Leang Heng to enter the country,” Teddy Baguilat, former Philippine MP and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said in a statement. “They should never have been detained in the first place.”

Cambodia has dispatched 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 organized 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 behavior 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.

All Means Necessary

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.

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 September 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 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 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.”

(Updates with new detail in third paragraph.)

--With assistance from Anisah Shukry.

To contact the reporter on this story: Philip J. Heijmans in Singapore at pheijmans1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate

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