Asia Pacific / Politics

Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrives in Malaysia on way home


Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrived in Malaysia on Saturday, making partial progress in his quest to return to his home country to lead a movement to try to oust long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sam Rainsy arrived in Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon after announcing earlier that he was boarding a plane in Paris, his home in exile, without disclosing his destination.

He and fellow members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party had publicly declared that they planned to return to their homeland Saturday, Cambodia’s Independence Day, to end the authoritarian rule of Hun Sen and restore democracy.

Hun Sen’s government has vigorously opposed their return and declared they will be arrested immediately if they return to the country.

In what may be a possible turnaround in the Cambodian government’s position, however, Sar Kheng, its influential deputy prime minister and interior minister, said on his Facebook page Saturday, “As of now, there is not any announcement by the Cambodian government to bar culprit Sam Rainsy and his colleagues from entering the country.”

Sar Kheng said Sam Rainsy — who has several convictions with prison sentences to serve along with charges pending for several other alleged offenses — can return as an ordinary person but will have to face due justice. Sam Rainsy considers the legal actions political persecution.

It is unclear if Sar Kheng’s Facebook post represents government policy. Cambodia’s long holiday weekend runs through Tuesday.

Sam Rainsy spoke to reporters briefly on his arrival in Kuala Lumpur and appeared to acknowledge that he would not make it to Cambodia on Saturday, saying he had been invited by Malaysian lawmakers to meet with them Tuesday. He declared that his visit was a private one and that he was grateful to the Malaysia authorities.

His comments appeared to sidestep the issue of whether he is interfering with Cambodia’s internal affairs while on Malaysian soil. Malaysia and Cambodia are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which maintains a policy of noninterference in each other’s affairs. Malaysia and Thailand have both hindered the free movement of opposition party leaders, drawing criticism from human rights groups.

“Keep up the hope. We are on the right track. Democracy will prevail,” Sam Rainsy said. “Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia, democracy will prevail in Cambodia. We look up to Malaysia as our model to strengthen democracy in a peaceful way.”

In Cambodia on Saturday, Hun Sen and constitutional monarch King Norodom Sihamoni attended a celebration ceremony at Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, the capital.

Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have a stranglehold on power, which was ensured when Cambodia’s high court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party in late 2017 for allegedly treasonous activities.