Holding a revoked Cambodian passport, a ruling party intent on stifling her return, and now even a pandemic-hit global travel sector, the odds of a successful homecoming for Mu Sochua in the coming weeks seem slim at best.
But that’s not stopping the exiled opposition figure, the vice-president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party, from exploring every potential avenue to facilitate her return – now even calling on King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene.
“The king has a lot of power, and he’s not using it,” she said. “I’m sorry, as citizens, as his subjects, we have to ask the king to be courageous – be a leader.”
During a January 4 phone interview with the Globe from the US state of Rhode Island, she explained that, without her Cambodian passport, she had unsuccessfully applied for a visa as a US citizen in an attempt to return to the Kingdom to face trial. Regardless, she said her team has booked a Singapore Airlines flight to the Kingdom that arrives on January 17, replacing an earlier cancelled one.
In a last ditch attempt to gain entry to the country, Sochua said, she and the CNRP executive committee were preparing a letter to be sent to the monarch on January 5.
“One of my last resorts is to ask the king to call a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy to question the court and the judges,” she said, pointing to the body Sihamoni heads that is officially tasked with guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary.
She continued that the courts, if truly independent, have the power to force the hand of the government to issue her a visa, upholding her constitutional right to be present at her own trial.
“The king should ask the judiciary, why are you not taking measures to ensure that these defendants can be present in court?” she said.
The king has a lot of power, and he’s not using it. I’m sorry, as citizens, as his subjects, we have to ask the king to be courageous – be a leader
Sochua’s trial relates to the failed return of CNRP leader Sam Rainsy on November 9, 2019, in which he had promised a triumphant homecoming over the Thai border flanked by thousands of migrant workers in a challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party. However, he was blocked in Paris from boarding his Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, before reaching Kuala Lumpur alongside Sochua where their return petered out to little fanfare.
In the wake of those events, 139 alleged supporters of Rainsy’s return were charged with a litany of offences, ranging from treason to incitement to cause chaos. Among the accused are four US citizens, one of whom, Daniel James Capka, has never visited Cambodia. The murky mass trial has left many defendants unsure of their charges, with domestic and international rights groups decrying the lack of transparency and due process.
Most recently on December 29, 21 of the accused – a mix of local activists and party top brass charged in absentia, among them Rainsy – had their cases heard at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Sochua’s case is set to reach the court on January 14, with the series of trials set to run until March 4.
But barring an almost unthinkable intervention from the king, another blocked return looks more likely than not for Sochua, with it unclear where she and her party go from here and how they remain relevant in Cambodian political discourse. CNRP members within the Kingdom look increasingly resigned to the situation, with former party lawmaker Ou Chanroth telling the Phnom Penh Post on January 4 that “if she cannot return, I will continue taking the stance of establishing a new party”.
But for Sochua, the CNRP’s credibility and relevance should not be the thing in question.
“Why is it that you question our words? If you [Hun Sen] have put me on trial, have the courage to allow me to go to Cambodia and face trial. And then, arrest me!” she said. “I have said many times, arrest me, put me in quarantine, whatever you want. Why isn’t Hun Sen doing it? That’s the question you have to ask.”