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Throngs of Supporters Welcome Opposition Leader

Opposition supporters welcome Sam Rainsy on his arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Opposition supporters welcome Sam Rainsy on his arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport.

More than 10,000 supporters lined the streets of Phnom Penh on Saturday, to welcome opposition leader Sam Rainsy back to the country in the wake of violent clashes earlier in the week.

Sam Rainsy, the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, is returning to negotiate for electoral reforms, with seven of his lawmakers-elect in jail and facing criminal charges of insurrection and incitement of violence.

Supporters called for the release of the jailed opposition members, which include Mu Sochua, a popular leader who has led numerous nonviolent demonstrations in recent months against a government ban on public assembly.

Her supporters turned against city security guards on Tuesday as they were barred entry into Freedom Park, the cite of numerous clashes between demonstrators and security officials since the ban went in place in January.

Saturday’s throngs flew in the face of that ban, and no riot police were deployed to stop them, a reprieve from typical security measures for smaller demonstrations in recent years.

In a speech Saturday, Sam Rainsy, who had been abroad when Tuesday’s violence erupted, urged his supporters to remain peaceful and nonviolent.

Sam Rainsy told VOA Khmer shortly after arriving that he plans to hold talks with senior members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in an effort to break a yearlong political deadlock. He will also seek the release of jailed party members, he said.

Chheang Von, a CPP lawmaker and negotiator, said he welcomed further talks with the opposition to resolve their differences.

The Rescue Party has boycotted joining the new government since July 2013 elections it says were marred by fraud. It has called for election reforms, including in the way the National Election Committee is appointed.

The two sides disagree on how the committee should be approved in the National Assembly. The opposition wants a two-thirds majority to vote on the committee, while the ruling party says a simple majority will do.

Analysts told VOA Khmer this week they expect the CPP to use the jailed opposition members as leverage in upcoming negotiations.

The US meanwhile has repeatedly called for the release of the opposition members, who face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of the charges against them.

“We emphasize the importance of due process guarantees and call for the release of the Cambodia National Rescue Party officials,” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, told reporters Friday. “We once again also urge … the Cambodian government to lift the ban on demonstrations and allow for the peaceful exercise of freedom of assembly.”