Cambodian PM fires arrest warning to fans of his arch-rival

Phnom Penh (AFP) –


Cambodia's premier Hun Sen on Wednesday threatened to arrest supporters of his nemesis Sam Rainsy if they mobilise for the opposition figurehead's much-trumpeted return from self-exile next month.

Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail for convictions he insists are politically motivated, has promised a dramatic return on November 9, Cambodia's Independence Day.

Seeking to maintain his support base after years outside the country, Rainsy has urged supporters - including among the armed forces - to unite to topple Hun Sen and restore democracy to the poor Southeast Asian nation.

Hun Sen, who has ruled the kingdom for 34 years, has hit back with a new barrage of arrests and threats.

"Those who join the campaign to destroy the country and peace on November 9 will be prosecuted," Hun Sen warned Wednesday in a typically bombastic speech.

In his absence, Rainsy's opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been dismantled through court rulings and intimidation.

Dozens of opposition activists have been arrested over recent weeks for allegedly agitating for the government to be toppled during Rainsy's mooted return.

Last week, Rainsy and several opposition officials were charged with plotting a coup, which carries up to 30 years in jail.

The court also warned that anyone deemed to be a co-conspirator could face 20 years in prison.

Comparing Rainsy to a "crazy dog" Hun Sen urged Cambodians to observe the violent outcome of the "colour revolutions" of the Arab world before supporting the return of his political nemesis.

Observers remain cautious over the likelihood of a return for Rainsy without him first securing a compromise deal with Hun Sen.

"Only when I see him, will I believe it," political analyst Lao Mong Hay told AFP.

But Rainsy and his now-dissolved party still draw widespread public support and the ability to unnerve Hun Sen.

"That is reflected in the reaction from the (ruling) Cambodian People's Party and the government," he added.

Rainsy's opposition CNRP outstripped expectations in 2013 elections, a poll it says was flawed.

But the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court ahead of the 2018 vote, handing Hun Sen's ruling party a landslide.