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Malaysia, Thailand criticized for preventing Cambodian politicians from returning home

The U.S. has expressed concern over Cambodia's crackdown on opposition to authoritarian leader Hun Sen, while Amnesty International decried co-operation by Malaysia and Thailand to prevent foreign-based opposition figures getting home to rally support.

Politicians exiled under autocrat Hun Sen's crackdown have sought to return for Independence Day

Cambodia's most prominent opposition politician Sam Rainsy speaks to reporters on Thursday at Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris. Rainsy said he was prevented from flying to Bangkok en route to Phnom Penh. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

The United States on Friday expressed concern over Cambodia's crackdown on opposition to authoritarian leader Hun Sen, which has seen dozens of activists arrested and opposition leaders abroad prevented from returning.

Human rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, decried co-operation by Malaysia and Thailand to prevent foreign-based Cambodian opposition figures getting home to rally support.

Self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, who had vowed to return to Cambodia on Saturday to lead demonstrations against one-party rule, said he was prevented Thursday from checking in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok.

A day earlier, Malaysia had detained his banned opposition party's U.S.-based vice-president, Mu Sochua, at an airport before releasing her 24 hours later, along with two other Cambodian opposition leaders who were detained earlier.

In Cambodia, at least 48 opposition activists have been arrested this year since Rainsy announced plans to return on Nov. 9 — Cambodia's independence day — to rally opposition to longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Heavy security for Independence Day on Saturday

At least 20,000 security personnel will be deployed around the capital, Phnom Penh, to ensure no disturbances of Independence Day celebrations and the annual Water Festival on Sunday and Monday, police said.

The United States was "deeply concerned by the recent expanding series of arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the Cambodian political opposition and by efforts to thwart the return to Cambodia of citizens seeking peaceful participation in the political process," an embassy spokesperson said Friday.

"These actions represent an escalation in suppression of the political opposition," she added.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has described the opposition plans as a bid to stage a coup d'état.

The banned Cambodian National Rescue Party's leader at home, Kem Sokha, remains under house arrest after being charged with treason in 2017.

Mu Sochua is shown earlier this week in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mu Sochua's bid to return to Cambodia was foiled in Malaysia. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's research director for Southeast Asia, questioned the action by countries in the region to block opposition leaders and activists from travelling home.

"Cambodia's neighbours should not bow to Hun Sen's pressures," she said. "Malaysia was right to release Mu Sochua and her two compatriots. But they should never have been detained in the first place."

Mu Sochua, who remains in Malaysia, vowed the opposition would keep trying to return to Cambodia.

"Still maintaining the same plan: Cambodia by land," she said in a tweet. "Hun Sen cannot deprive us & the people the right to return. Open the border."

Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen's ruling party to win all the seats in parliament in a general election last year.

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