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Exiled leader returns to 'rescue' Cambodia

4 min

After being pardoned last week, exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy received a hero’s welcome Friday, in a homecoming that FRANCE 24’s correspondent called “a clear message” for Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of legislative elections.


Thousands of cheering supporters greeted Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy as he returned from self-imposed exile Friday to lead his party’s election campaign against well-entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I have come home to rescue the country,” Rainsy told the crowd gathered at Phnom Penh’s airport, after kneeling to kiss the ground.

Supporters shouted, “We want change!”

The French-educated leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party has been in exile since 2009 to avoid serving 11 years in prison on charges many consider politically motivated.

Rainsy, 64, received a royal pardon last week at the request of bitter rival Hun Sen, whose ruling party is almost certain to maintain its iron-clad grip on power in the July 28 general election.

‘A clear message to Hun Sen’

Cyril Payen, FRANCE 24’s regional correspondent, noted that he had met Rainsy while he was in exile just one month ago, when chances of his political comeback in Cambodia were considered slim.

“The pardon, which came after the US and other countries had said his exclusion from the campaign would call into question the polls’ legitimacy, is a ‘veritable moment of political theatre’,” Payen said.

Payen added that the enthusiastic reception that awaited Rainsy is “a very clear message to Hu Sen… It’s a challenge to his power.”

Hun Sen has ruled for 28 years, and his party has 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. The prime minister recently said that he intends to stay in office until he is 74, cutting back from an earlier vow to stay in control until he’s 90.

Critics of the government claim the election will be neither free nor fair, arguing that Hun Sen’s regime abuses power and influences the judiciary to weaken the opposition.

Last month, 28 opposition lawmakers were expelled from parliament when Hun Sen’s party ruled they had broken the law, because they had originally won their seats in the name of the Sam Rainsy Party, but then campaigned for re-election under the recently established Cambodia National Rescue Party, into which it was merged.

They can still run in the upcoming election, but without parliamentary immunity.

Immunity from arrest is a great benefit in Cambodia’s elections, and those without it are at risk of being charged with defamation for remarks deemed critical of Hun Sen and his government.

Rainsy could galvanise those looking for change

Rainsy, known as a charismatic and fiery speaker, is expected to draw large crowds as he embarks on a whirlwind campaign tour that his party says will take him to over a dozen provinces in a week.

He is likely to emphasise issues of corruption and land-grabbing, with tens or hundreds of thousands of Cambodians displaced from their homes and farms under what are often shady circumstances.

Because Rainsy was absent during the registration periods, he will be unable to run as a candidate, or even vote, although his lawyers have said they were seeking a way to allow his participation.

But his popularity could galvanise Hun Sen’s opponents. “[Rainsy’s] return is very symbolic,” Payen noted. “He’s adored by the middle class, and a large part of the population that would like a bit of political change in this country.”

The July 28 election will be the fifth parliamentary poll since the UN brokered a peace deal for Cambodia in 1991, a process meant to end decades of bloodshed that included the communist Khmer Rouge’s catastrophic rule from 1975 to 1979.

An estimated 1.7 million people died in torture centers, labor camps or of starvation or disease during the time the Khmer Rouge was in power.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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