Malaysia detained the deputy chief of Cambodia's banned opposition party, Mu Sochua, after Phnom Penh accused her and other self-exiled opposition figures of seeking to return home to stage a coup against longtime authoritarian leader Hun Sen.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad indicated on Thursday that Mu Sochua would not be turned over to Cambodia but would instead be deported to an as-yet-undetermined third country.
The detention came as Sam Rainsy, the founder of the opposition party, prepared to fly from Paris to Bangkok, vowing to return to Cambodia on Saturday to lead demonstrations against the one-party rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mu Sochua, 65, is one of several opposition leaders who fled from Cambodia fearing arrest and are now seeking to return with Sam Rainsy to rally support for their cause.
It was unclear if any of the opposition figures abroad would reach Cambodia for the planned demonstrations. Thailand said it will not allow transit for Sam Rainsy, and Malaysia this week detained two other opposition leaders trying to fly to Thailand.
Mu Sochua flew into Kuala Lumpur on her US passport and was being detained at the airport. Mahathir said Malaysia was bound by its principle of non-interference in neighbors' affairs in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"We do not want to let them to use Malaysia as a base for struggle in other countries," Mahathir told reporters. "We wanted to deport her now we are trying to find any country that can take her." The United States was ware of the situation, a US government spokesman said. He would not comment further due to privacy restrictions.
A former women's minister, Mu Sochua is vice president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and one of the highest-profile opposition leaders detained in Hun Sen's efforts to prevent their return.
Thailand denied her entry on Oct. 20 On Wednesday, she held a news conference in Indonesia to denounce a crackdown by Cambodian authorities, who have arrested at least 48 opposition activists at home this year and deployed troops along the borders in recent weeks. "What do they fear?" she asked. "They totally fear the determination of the people of Cambodia, who are responding positively to our appeal, which is that together we will build a better Cambodia." She later flew to Malaysia, where she was detained.
Mu Sochua fled Cambodia in 2017 amid a mass crackdown on the opposition. The party's leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested on treason charges and remains under house arrest. Cambodia's Supreme Court later dissolved the CNRP. The party of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, went on to win all the seats in parliament in a general election last year.
Mu Sochua's news conference in Jakarta was interrupted by the Cambodian ambassador, who argued she should not be given a forum. The Cambodian embassy later asked Indonesia to arrest her "in the true spirit of ASEAN", it said in a statement, adding that similar requests had been made to neighboring countries. Cambodian national police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said Mu Sochua had been charged in connection with a plot to topple the government.
Her treatment was condemned by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) as a "complete disregard" for democracy. "It is outrageous that Malaysia and other ASEAN countries are doing the dirty bidding of their counterparts fearful of legitimate political opposition," said APHR board member Kasit Piromya.
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