PHNOM PENH: Tens of thousands of jubilant supporters welcomed Cambodia’s newly pardoned opposition leader home from exile on Friday as his party fights to end Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nearly three decades in power.
Huge crowds gathered outside Phnom Penh’s airport and lined the road to the city center to welcome Sam Rainsy, waving flags and shouting “change, change!”
The French-educated former banker fled in 2009 to avoid charges he contends were politically motivated.
Rainsy kissed the ground at the airport upon returning from France before boarding a truck with his political allies, raising his fist as he greeted a sea of supporters.
“I’m very happy. I came back to rescue the nation with you all,” he said before heading in a convoy for Democracy Park, which was packed with people waiting for him to speak.
The 64-year-old had faced 11 years in jail but was pardoned by King Sihamoni last week at Hun Sen’s request, clearing the way for his return ahead of elections on July 28.
United States (US) lawmakers have called for the US to cut off aid to Cambodia unless this month’s polls are free and fair.
Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leaders. His Cambodian People’s Party won the last two polls by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
In May, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the murderous 1970s regime and became premier in 1985, said he would try to stay in power for another decade.
Rainsy said before his return that the pardon was “a small victory for democracy” but also warned that “much more remains to be done.”
The opposition leader, who is seen as the main challenger to strongman Hun Sen, has been removed from the electoral register and as a result is unable to run as a candidate this month unless parliament amends the law.
But he plans to hit the campaign trail soon to try to boost support for his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“His presence will galvanise activists and voters,” said CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.
Sovann said the CNRP would discuss possible ways to register Rainsy as a candidate after his return.
The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, on Monday urged Cambodia to let Rainsy play a “full part” in politics.
Rainsy left his homeland and moved to Paris aged 16 after the disappearance of his father, a politician believed to have been killed by government agents after a failed coup attempt.
After earning a Masters in Business Administration from France’s Insead Business School, he worked for various banks in Paris before setting up his own accountancy firm.
Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 1992 and briefly held the post of finance minister.
He fled in 2005 after Hun Sen pressed defamation charges against him but received a royal pardon the following year and returned to the kingdom.
Rainsy left Cambodia once again in 2009 and was convicted in his absence for charges including inciting racial discrimination and spreading disinformation.
Hun Sen had previously vowed to hold office until he reached 90. He turns 61 in August but officially lists his age as 62, which he says is the result of a typing error.