The exiled pair and other Cambodian activists had planned to return to Cambodia on Saturday, Cambodia’s independence day, overland from Thailand, to advocate the restoration of democracy.
The plan was likely doomed to fail from the start and Rainsy, in particular, has loudly promised to return before and not been able to deliver.
Nevertheless, tensions are high in Cambodia. Police and the military have been deployed and government mouth pieces such as Fresh News thunder about Rainsy’s “wicked plan to topple the Cambodian government”. Some 60 opposition activities have been arrested this year.
The detention of Sochua and blocking of Rainsy’s travel matters for two reasons – one practical, one geopolitical.
There are around 60,000 people in the Cambodian-Australian diaspora. Some have faced harassment in Australia and Hun Sen famously threatened to “beat up” opponents in Australia if they burnt his effigy.
Nearly 30 years since the long civil war ended in 1991 – a process in which Australia played an important role – democracy has eroded to the point where Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985, now controls all 125 seats in parliament.
Cambodia is a popular tourist destination for Australians (150,000 people visited in 2016), with the historic Angkor Wat temple complex, the bars and restaurants of Phnom Penh and in earlier times, the beaches of Sihanoukville (before it was ruined by unregulated Chinese investment) and nearby islands.
When Australians travel to Cambodia to spend their holiday dollars they are travelling to a country that does not respect democratic rights, freedom of speech or assembly and which has jailed hundreds of Hun Sen’s political opponents.
From a geopolitical perspective, Hun Sen has been pressuring fellow ASEAN countries to arrest or at least block CNRP leaders from returning to Cambodia.
ASEAN has long championed the principle of non-interference in each others’ affairs.
But Thailand’s decision to block Rainsy’s travel – and to deport Sochua from Thailand a couple of weeks ago – is interference in Cambodian affairs in that it preserves the political status quo.
Malaysia’s decision to detain Sochua, reversed after an apparent struggle between that country’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs, and the apparent intervention of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, verged on a being a similar intervention to that of Thailand.
The Lowy Institute’s Ben Bland says there has been a spate of cases where regional governments have shut down critics from fellow ASEAN countries.
“This is linked to the principle of non-interference, but it’s a defensive move – they are wary of their own critics being given a platform overseas, too, so they look to support each other,” he says.
“Restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are widespread across the region, so it’s not surprising to see dissidents from other south-east Asian nations struggling to find a platform in neighbouring countries.”
And as Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson points out: “given what has transpired over the last few days it’s really important that Australia speaks out. The spirit of ASEAN does not mean conspiring to forcibly return political opponents to an oppressive regime”.
A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said “we are 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.”
The United States said it was “deeply concerned ” by the developments.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.