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How an imminent Cambodia revolution could impact US-China trade war

Hundr of thousands of Australians descend on Cambodia each year to bask on its pristine tropical beaches and lap up the ancient remains of Angkor Wat.

But few would comprehend the escalating political turmoil bubbling away behind the scenes of the holiday hotspot, which threatens to boil over this weekend.

Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy vowed to face the machine guns of the autocratic nation’s armed forces tomorrow and lead an uprising to depose strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.

But he was stopped from boarding a flight in Paris on Thursday (local time), according to AP.

The co-founder of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was due to begin his journey from Paris to the border of his home nation, where he told news.com.au he planned to meet tens of thousands of supporters tomorrow and march to the capital Phnom Penh.

A peaceful uprising is promised, but the violence and assassinations that have been a hallmark of Hun Sen’s near 35-year reign suggest this is ambitious.

The Prime Minister had deployed 20,000 troops in preparation for Mr Rainsy’s arrival at the ThailandCambodia border where he said he would arrest his rival as well as CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua.

Both have been in self-exile after arrest warrants were issued related to charges widely considered politically motivated.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, an angry Sam Rainsy told reporters that he wouldn’t be cowed by being kept off his flight and said he plans to return via another neighbouring country.

“Never, never will I abandon. We need to continue, the days of Hun Sen are numbered. Democracy will be reinstalled in the near future. It’s our conviction and our determination,” he said.

This year, Hun Sen has tightened his grasp on his authoritarian state through the arrest of at least 48 political opponents.

Speaking from an airport in France ahead of his scheduled trip to Phnom Penh, Mr Rainsy told news.com.au it was his right and his duty to return home.

“(Hun Sen) said he will position machine guns to eliminate me and my supporters, but I am not afraid,” he said.

“I have no option left but to return to Cambodia and to call for a popular uprising.”

Mr Rainsy said Cambodians were tired of the dictatorial methods of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and would join his cause despite the prevailing threats of violence and arrests.

“On the surface there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” he said.

“But I think that deep inside the heart of the Cambodian people they are waiting for an opportunity and for a chief to join this popular movement.”

“There are two million migrant workers in Thailand who have been organising in small groups from all over the country and are converging on Poipet (a small town which borders Cambodia).

“We will cross the border together and march to Phnom Penh together.”

Sam Rainsy says he will lead a peaceful uprising despite threats of violence and arrest. Picture: Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Mr Rainsy denied this confrontation would end in violence, saying the armed forces would “not dare” shoot their own people.

“On the contrary,” he insists.

“They will join the crowd, they will stand by the people and stop standing by dictator Hun Sen.

“I hope and I believe that this will be a historic movement in which the whole Cambodian people will rise up to bring down this brutal dictatorship embodied by Hun Sen.”

Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen. Picture: AP Photo/Wason WanichakornSource:AP

DESCENSION INTO DICTATORSHIP

Strongman Hun Sen’s decades-long reign over the Southeast Asian nation is synonymous with land grabbing, illegal logging and the mistreatment of garment workers.

Although his rule is commonly linked with violence and the assassinations of dissidents, Cambodia has descended further into an authoritarian state in recent years.

In 2016, a popular political commentator, Kem Ley, and vocal opponent of the ruling party was shot to death as he drank his morning coffee at a service station in the capital Phnom Penh.

Before last year’s general election, the CPP disbanded the opposition (CNRP) and imprisoned then party leader Kem Sokha on trumped-up treason charges.

This resulted in a bogus ballot with the CPP securing all 125 parliamentary seats in the National Assembly.

Nearly all free voices in the media were silenced in the lead-up to the election.

The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut after the government imposed spurious back taxes and the country’s other leading newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian businessman from a public relations company that worked for the Cambodian government.

The strangulation of independent media extended to broadcast, with 32 radio stations critical of the regime forced to close including United States-funded stations Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Cambodia has a long history of violent political protests. Picture: AP PhotoSource:Supplied

CHINA’S CONVENIENT ALLY IN THE GULF OF THAILAND

The coastal Cambodian city Sihanoukville is home to a deep port and has become vital for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road development initiative.

Chinese investment has flooded into the tourist hot spot, building up to 70 casinos despite gambling being banned.

The area has become a key centre for China in the region, where it now owns billions of dollars worth of power plants and offshore oil operations.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the two countries had agreed to a secret long-term deal for China to use a nearby military base to allow it to strengthen its position in the region, particularly its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Hun Sen said the report was the “worst fake news against Cambodia”, but it highlighted the growing concern of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, which all lay claim to the same water next door to the Gulf of Thailand.

A US embassy spokesperson urged the government in Phnom Penh to be “fully transparent about any military agreement with China”, according to VOA Khmer.

“We urge Cambodia’s leadership to honour its constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy, and to protect Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty for future generations.”

Cambodia has relied on US aid and support in the decades preceding the annihilation from the repressive Khmer Rouge regime but it is increasingly leaning on funds from China, creating a problematic partnership for Washington.

The CambodiaChina alliance creates a gateway to the South China Sea for the Chinese military.Source:Supplied

THWARTED ON ARRIVAL

Mr Rainsy’s bid to face the machine guns at the Cambodian border on Saturday may be thwarted on arrival in Bangkok after Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he won’t allow CNRP leaders to enter his country.

He told reporters that in keeping with the agreement of member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — not to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs, he has given an order that no resistance organisation will be allowed to operate on Thai territory. “So, he won’t be able to enter Thailand,” Mr Prayuth said, referring to Sam Rainsy.

The exiled Cambodian leader said he was shocked and disappointed by Thailand’s position, but that he would still try to carry out the plan to return.

“I don’t give up. I will try to the last minute. I think no one should stand with Hun Sen — he is a dictator,” the 70-year-old politician, who maintains dual Cambodian and French citizenship, told The Associated Press.

Cambodia National Rescue Party vice-presidnet Mu Sochua plans to join Mr Rainsy in Thailand. Picture: AP Photo/Achmad IbrahimSource:AP

INTIMIDATION EXTENDS TO JAKARTA

Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia on Wednesday had a face-to-face confrontation with a top opposition politician who was holding a news conference at a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, to explain the returnees’ plans.

Ambassador Hor Nambora barged into the news conference and spoke in front of the assembled journalists as CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua sat waiting to speak.

The envoy described the opposition politicians as fugitives and criminals, and accused Mu Sochua of trying to mislead Indonesian immigration authorities into thinking she was only a tourist by using her American passport.

She holds dual Cambodian and US citizenship.

Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia Hor Nambora, left, interrupts the press conference held by Mu Sochua, right. Picture: AP Photo/Achmad IbrahimSource:AP

Hor Nambora did not further disturb the proceedings, though he paced at the front of the conference room as Mu Sochua spoke.

As he left, he apologised to journalists for any disruption, but reiterated that Cambodian courts had ruled against the opposition politicians.

“We are risking our lives, we will go to Cambodia empty-handed with bare hands,” Mu Sochua told the news conference, which was also attended by Indonesian activists.

“Returning home for democracy in Cambodia, it’s not a revolution, it’s not a coup d’etat.”

Sihanoukville in Cambodia has become a hotspot for Australian tourists. Picture: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFPSource:AFP

TOURISM PARADISE

The Khmer Rouge-led genocide in the late 1970s created political unrest and economic turmoil in Cambodia for decades.

And although the Southeast Asian nation is considered a developing country, its tourism industry has boomed in recent years, becoming a popular destination for Australians.

Nearly 150,000 Aussies visited Cambodia in 2016, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, flocking to beachside paradises in and around Sihanoukville and the ancient remains Angkor Wat in the northern city Siem Reap.

A DFAT spokesman told news.com.au the department was following developments in Cambodia closely, including the recent increase in arrests.

“Australia has consistently raised its concerns about the current political situation with the Cambodian Government, emphasising that free and open political debate, without intimidation, should be protected,” he said.

— with AP

Have you visited Cambodia? Are you concerned by the growing unrest? Comment below or get in touch | @James_P_Hall | james.hall1@news.com.au