PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An effort by a self-exiled senior member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to lead a return to her homeland on Sunday has failed after an airline refused to carry her.
The thwarted plan to return represented the second attempt by party leaders to rejoin the political struggle at home. In November 2019, Sam Rainsy, the party’s co-founder, sought to return from exile with several colleagues but was blocked by the government. He has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving a prison sentence for a defamation conviction that he insists was politically motivated.
Party vice president Mu Sochua said Saturday that Singapore Airlines did not allow her to board a flight from Los Angeles that would have taken her to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, after transiting in Singapore.
She said on a live broadcast on Facebook that the airline told her she could not board because she did not have a visa for Cambodia. Mu Sochua holds dual Cambodian-U.S. citizenship, but travels on her U.S. passport because her Cambodian one was revoked by Cambodia’s government in 2019. She was also one of the party leaders who was blocked from returning in 2019.
Cambodian government officials recently said they would not allow the opposition party to have valid travel documents to return.
It was not immediately clear if other party members who had planned to return with Mu Sochua had completed the journey.
Mu Sochua is one of about 150 opposition party members and supporters who are facing trial on treason charges, and she had announced she was returning to take part in the trial. Cambodian law allows people to be tried and sentenced in absentia.
Most of the opposition party leaders, and others among the group to be tried, fled Cambodia in late 2017, when Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents and the CNRP was forced by the high court to disband and its lawmakers removed from Parliament. Many people believe the court acted to ensure that Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party won the 2018 general election, which it did by sweeping all the seats in Parliament.
Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime. Several Western nations have imposed sanctions on his government, mainly after concluding that the 2018 election was neither free nor fair.
Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for the Cambodian People’s Party, responded to the failed mission of Mu Sochua by charging that she knew in advance that she would not be allowed to board because she lacked the necessary travel documents.
In a posting on social media platforms, he called the planned return just a theatrical act designed to get public attention.
“The drama in which Mu Sochua played a main role was a failure because there are no watchers,” he said.