Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned home from exile yesterday after a royal pardon removed the threat of a jail term and he immediately joined the campaign to unseat long-serving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in this month’s election.
“I come to rescue the nation with you, brothers, sisters and nephews,” Rainsy, speaking through a microphone on the back of a pickup truck, told thousands of supporters lining the road from Phnom Penh Airport.
The crowds brought traffic to a halt and forced some passengers to leave the airport on foot with their luggage.
Rainsy, a former finance minister, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia in 2010 on charges of spreading disinformation and falsifying maps to contest a new border agreed by Cambodia and Vietnam.
He had chosen exile the previous year rather than face trial for what US-based Human Rights Watch said at the time were charges that were politically motivated and showed Hun was “no longer interested in even the pretense of democracy.”
In power for 28 years, Hun seems likely to retain power with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
However, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), formed through a merger last year including the Sam Rainsy Party, is mounting a strong campaign.
Hun asked Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni to pardon Rainsy this month, a move that may have been aimed at fending off criticism from the US, EU and others after allegations by his opponents of electoral misconduct.
In the letter carrying the request, which has been read out on state television, he said this was based on “national reconciliation” and the fact that Rainsy’s return would ensure the election on Sunday next week was democratic and free.
It is still not clear if Rainsy will be able to contest a parliamentary seat, but he will lead the CNRP campaign around the country over the coming week.
The CNRP said up to 40,000 people, including Buddhist monks, had turned out to welcome him back.
Thousands more joined the crowd as it moved toward the center of town, following his vehicle.
Supporters with stickers bearing the party’s “rising sun” logo on their cheeks chanted: “Change, change!”
“I came here just to see him, I miss him and I love him,” said Kong Oun, 66, who had traveled from Prey Veng Province in the southeast. “He is the cleanest person in the nation and the CNRP will win the election if there is no cheating.”
On June 8, following a CPP-dominated committee expelling 29 opposition lawmakers from parliament, the US Department of State called for: “A political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field.”