PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, a longtime foe of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has vowed to return to the country next year. If realized, the move would be seen as posing a predicament to the rule of a one-party state that is under threat of trade sanctions by the European Union.
Since the middle of December, officials of the Cambodia National Rescue Party have repeatedly mentioned the return of the leader in exile.
On Tuesday, leading opposition figure Mu Sochua said Rainsy and a "big group" of other CNRP members will return in early March. "We have been discussing for at least two months. There's no if. He will return," she added.
Rainsy himself revealed his intention to return. "I am asking all Cambodians to rise up and join me at that time, so that we can jointly fight for real change," he told supporters of the CNRP on Dec. 16 in Paris, where he is exiled.
This was followed by Facebook posts from senior CNRP officials, Um Virakroath and Eng Chhai Eang, who claimed that Rainsy would "lead all CNRP officials who are living abroad to return to the motherland before Khmer New Year" in April.
The return would likely land Rainsy in jail due to a slew of convictions widely perceived as politically charged. Prime Minister Hun Sen rebuked the exiled leader's intention to return. "I have already prepared handcuffs and prisons [for him]," the strongman said on Wednesday, according to The Phnom Penh Post.
But there is widespread doubt about whether Rainsy will actually return, as he has failed to follow through on similar claims in the past. However, for the Hun Sen regime, even the potential return of Rainsy is concerning.
Hun Sen "will be thinking of ways to prevent the return of Sam Rainsy if it is, in fact, real. And if it does happen ... then he would have to arrest Rainsy to shut him up, which would bring yet more international wrath on Cambodia," said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The latest proclamation of the exiled leader was likely an effort to exert pressure on the Hun Sen regime, according to Ear. "He and his supporters feel international pressure on Hun Sen and the [ruling Cambodian People's Party] will keep increasing, and that by the Cambodian New Year, the picture will be different enough to force a change in his politically motivated legal entanglements."
Ear's analysis echoes the thoughts of some CNRP officials. "When I left last October, I made it clear that it was to do advocacy with the international community. We can be confident that the EU will impose sanctions on [everything but arms] and the U.S.A. will impose their own targeted sanctions," Sochua said.
Rainsy's latest claim comes at a time of turmoil for the CNRP. After years of managing to keep simmering tensions between the Rainsy group and a faction led by Kem Sokha behind closed doors, divisions have surfaced in recent months, as Rainsy was nominated acting president to the anger of Sokha, who is currently under house arrest in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian National Assembly has approved a change to a law that would allow 118 CNRP members to return to politics, a move that appears to be an effort to prevent sanctions that could have a huge impact on the country's economy.
Kem Monovithya, Sokha's eldest daughter, who was the former CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs, offered a scathing analysis of Rainsy's "showmanship."
"He has always been a part-time politician from abroad, sadly, and counting to be relevant via his sensational rhetoric and PR stunts. Has Cambodia ever been his real home for the last 20-plus years?" Monovithya said. "His only vision is for his popularity, and he takes pride in utilizing showmanship to achieve that."
Rainsy did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite stating that Rainsy would be arrested if he chose to return to Cambodia, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the acting opposition leader's latest claim was simply an attempt to stay relevant. "It's just propaganda," Siphan said. "He wants to make sure the people have the will to support him and that they still have hope."
The CNRP was established in 2012 through a merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha's Human Rights Party. Although a seemingly uncomfortable marriage between two figures who had rarely seen eye-to-eye, the party almost pulled off a shock victory in the 2013 general election and made huge gains in last year's commune election.
Soon after, the party was dissolved and Sokha was jailed on widely discredited allegations that he was plotting a U.S.-backed revolution. The ruling CPP now controls all 125 National Assembly seats.