PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC - Cambodia’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, returned to the country on Friday after more than three years of self-imposed exile, kneeling to kiss the ground after he landed and addressing throngs of supporters who crowded Phnom Penh’s parks and boulevards to greet him.
“We go together to rescue the country,” he told the crowd. “I am here to rescue you all.”
Sam Rainsy was given a royal pardon last week, absolving him of charges he said were politically motivated and allowing for his return ahead of elections July 28.
Students, monks, and supporters young and old gathered to greet Sam Rainsy, who is the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Some waved the national flag of Cambodia. Others waved signs with the rising-sun emblem of the Rescue Party. “Change, change!” some chanted.
“I came here just to see him,” Kong Oun, 66, who traveled from Prey Veng province, told VOA Khmer. “I miss him, and I love him. He is the cleanest person in the nation, and the CNRP will win the election if there is no cheating.”
Opposition candidates hope to gain enough seats in the upcoming election to force changes in politics run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
Kem Sokha, vice president of the Rescue Party, told VOA Khmer that Sam Rainsy’s return would help make that happen.
“This is a historic event,” he said. “We’ve joined to gather for change and the CNRP’s sacrifice for the nation.”
Standing in the back of a truck and waving to supporters, Sam Rainsy made his way through the crowded streets of the city, ending at Freedom Park, where he addressed the crowd, defending his innocence and saying he was now “clean.”
Sam Rainsy said he would help enact policies of the Rescue Party, to curb corruption and injustice, to raise wages for civil servants and factory workers and to protect the country’s natural resources.
He was flanked by Kem Sokha and by Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, who was released from eight months in prison earlier this year and has endorsed the Rescue Party to his own supporters.
“I have arrived now,” Sam Rainsy said. “I will be with you. Let me shake your hands, let me take you by the shoulder. I’ll struggle together with you to rescue our nation.”
It remains unclear whether Sam Rainsy will be allowed to run for office, but his return to Cambodia has given a boost to the opposition’s campaign.
However, Cheam Yiep, a lawmaker for the ruling CPP, told VOA Khmer the outpouring of support for Sam Rainsy on Friday would not necessarily add up to a political victory.
“His presence this morning is because of the sentiment, reflection and favor of the Cambodian People’s Party,” Cheam Yiep said, adding that he thought the CPP would retain the 90 of 123 National Assembly seats it won in the 2008 elections.
“Whether Sam Rainsy is present or not, my party is not afraid,” he said.
Meanwhile, election observers and donors say that if Sam Rainsy is not allowed to contest the elections, they run the risk of losing credibility. The criminal charges against him made him ineligible to vote or run for office. But following last week’s royal pardon, some analysts say there is still hope that the National Election Committee—widely criticized for a bias toward the ruling party—will allow for his participation in the election.
“I think that political evolution will allow the opposition leader to have his name on the voter list, as well as to participate as a candidate in the election,” Hang Puthea, head of the election monitor Nicfec, told VOA Khmer.
Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, said enough time remains for the NEC to allow Sam Rainsy to contest the elections.
“Now there are 10 days remaining, so to me, I believe in the Cambodian institutions to do the work over what has been solved,” she said, referring to the royal pardon. “I hope there will be a continuation, to find solutions through Cambodian institutions, meaning to solve problems on our own, without pressure from anyone.”