PHNOM PENH – Political tensions are simmering in Cambodia. While most people are going about their everyday lives, there is an undercurrent of apprehension. Saturday is the day longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy pegged as the date he planned to return to Cambodia, potentially ending nearly four years of exile.
Sitting recently in the shade of his Indian-made tuktuk, Sam Nimol was worried that things were about to get worse. The 31-year-old resident of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district expected two scenarios: Either Sam Rainsy would come peacefully or there would be a negotiated resolution.
But if the outspoken politician is arrested, Sam Nimol worried, a confrontational situation could get violent, directly affecting people’s livelihoods.
“For this issue, if he comes peacefully, meaning nobody makes arrest of him, the solutions could be found step by step,” Sam Nimol said.
“But if violence is used, meaning he is arrested, there will be no solutions, and it will make …. [it] difficult to earn money,” he said.
In exile since 2015
Sam Rainsy has been in exile since 2015, when an arrest warrant was issued for him. Since then, Cambodian courts have found him guilty on multiple charges, which he says are trumped up.
In August, he announced his planned return to Cambodia on Independence Day, Nov. 9, to be accompanied by Cambodia National Rescue Party colleagues.
Since the announcement, there has been a significant escalation in political intimidation and arrests. Reports suggest more than 140 Cambodians have been convinced by authorities to admit they were involved in a plot to overthrow the government, and more than 40 have been charged for the same alleged crime.
The government has characterized Sam Rainsy’s return as a potential coup d’état, offering leniency to those who admit to an alleged plot to unseat the Hun Sen government.
For Oeun Sovannary, a souvenir vendor in the capital, the politics of Sam Rainsy’s planned return were of no concern. However, she said she did care about the effects it could have on her business.
“I want to say that first I want to see more tourists coming, so that I sell out more things,” Oeun Sovannary said. “Second, I want to see smooth situation, meaning I don’t want to see interruptions.”
This is not an uncommon sentiment among Phnom Penh residents. Cambodians are acutely aware of the effects a turbulent political environment could have on their pocketbooks. There has been increased anxiety over economic prospects ever since the European Union said it was investigating potential suspension of the “Everything But Arms” trade preferences over systemic human rights violations in the country.
At the same time, many Cambodians are averse to violence on the streets, whatever may be the cause. The last time Phnom Penh saw large-scale violence was when garment workers and Cambodia National Rescue Party protests were violently dispersed by the government in early 2014, following the contested 2013 national election.
But despite the risks of a negative outcome, some Cambodians felt Sam Rainsy’s return was needed to strike a political deal. Several people interviewed by VOA Khmer said they hoped the two political parties could end the partisan bickering and find a solution to the current impasse.
A young man selling coffee from a mobile cart in central Phnom Penh, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said Sam Rainsy’s return could usher in much-needed change. The streetside barista said he hoped that the opposition leader could have one electoral mandate to improve the economic situation.
“After one mandate is done for him, if the country is not developed to the level of [Hun Sen], he should resign on his own,” the vendor said. “Nobody would lend support to him again.”
Sok San, 40, a vendor in southern Phnom Penh, said she believed Sam Rainsy could be relied upon to tackle long-standing issues facing the country, such as unresolved land disputes, which disproportionately affect those without steady income.
Political scientist Lao Mong Hay, the former director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said both sides needed to soften the rhetoric and give negotiations a chance.
“[People] want the politicians and leaders to reconcile,” Lao Mong Hay said. “So why don’t we solve this issue?”
This article originated in VOA’s Khmer service.