BANGKOK – Plans by self-exiled leaders of Cambodia's banned opposition party to return to their homeland hit a major roadblock Wednesday when Thailand's prime minister said their top leader would not be allowed in to make his way through the country to the Cambodian border.
Leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party have vowed to return home on Saturday despite efforts by their government to thwart them. They are led by party co-founder Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2015 to avoid serving a prison term on charges that he says are politically motivated.
The opposition politicians had said they hoped to return accompanied by a mass of followers, including from the huge community of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. They say they seek to spark a popular movement to oust long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, an autocratic leader who has clamped down on his opponents and demolished democracy.
Sam Rainsy said that he was shocked and disappointed by Thailand's position, but that he would still try to carry out the plan to return.
"I don't give up. I will try to the last minute. I think no one should stand with Hun Sen — he is a dictator," the 70-year-old politician, who maintains dual Cambodian and French citizenship, told The Associated Press by phone from Paris.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters that in keeping with the agreement of member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, not to interfere in each other's domestic affairs, he has given an order that no resistance organization will be allowed to operate on Thai territory.
"So, he won't be able to enter Thailand," Prayuth said, referring to Sam Rainsy.
The Cambodia National Rescue 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.
Hun Sen's government has barred the opposition politicians' return, alerting airlines that they would be turned back, and also conveyed its position to neighboring countries. Cambodian security forces have been put on high alert and scores of opposition supporters have been detained.
Officials have repeatedly warned that if the opposition leaders did make it into Cambodia, they would immediately be arrested. Most if not all have convictions or charges pending against them, including inciting armed rebellion despite their avowedly nonviolent intentions.
Cambodia's ambassador to Indonesia on Wednesday had a face-to-face confrontation with a top opposition politician who was holding a news conference at a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, to explain the returnees' plans.
Ambassador Hor Nambora barged into the news conference and spoke in front of the assembled journalists as Cambodia National Rescue Party vice president Mu Sochua sat waiting to speak. The envoy described the opposition politicians as fugitives and criminals, and accused Mu Sochua of trying to mislead Indonesian immigration authorities into thinking she was only a tourist by using her American passport. She holds dual Cambodian and U.S. citizenship.
Hor Nambora did not further disturb the proceedings, though he paced at the front of the conference room as Mu Sochua spoke. As he left, he apologized to journalists for any disruption, but reiterated that Cambodian courts had ruled against the opposition politicians.
"We are risking our lives, we will go to Cambodia empty-handed with bare hands," Mu Sochua told the news conference, which was also attended by Indonesian activists. "Returning home for democracy in Cambodia, it's not a revolution, it's not a coup d'etat."
"We have asked neighboring countries to permit us safe passage to Cambodia and to have free movement when we are in Cambodia," she said. "We have been asking governments all around the world to witness our return to our nation, our homeland, with good intentions and totally transparent."
After the news conference, the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta issued a press release saying that Mu Sochua was a fugitive from the law because a Cambodian court on Oct. 2 had issued an arrest warrant against her for her allegedly seeking to overthrow a legally elected government.
"It is unfortunate that Indonesia, a fellow member state of ASEAN, allows Ms. Mu Sochua to enter in Indonesia despite of her arrest warrant and conduct anti Cambodian activities in Jakarta," it said.
The statement said the embassy "requests Indonesian authorities to arrest Ms. Mu Sochua and deport her to Cambodia immediately in the true spirit of ASEAN."
It also mentioned that Malaysia, another ASEAN member, had stopped and detained two youth activists with the Cambodia National Rescue Party as they sought to board a flight to Thailand.
The decision of Thailand to bar entry to Sam Rainsy was foreshadowed late last month when immigration officials turned Mu Sochua back on arrival at Bangkok's international airport, saying she was on a blacklist.
The embassy statement described that action as being "in true ASEAN spirit."
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.