Cambodian opposition leader returns home from exile

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned home to Cambodia on Friday from four years of self-imposed exile in France to take part in the general election that will be held July 28.

Sam Rainsy, 64, welcomed by tens of thousands of cheering supporters at Phnom Penh International Airport, told the crowd, "I am very, very happy to see you all here again. I am very impressed and now we are coming here to rescue the nation. We have to go forward together now."

After exiting the air terminal, Sam Rainsy joined fellow leaders of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in the back of a pickup truck for a triumphant drive into central Phnom Penh.

Earlier this year, Sam Rainsy became the leader of the CNRP, which was formed through a merger of his eponymous party and the Human Rights Party.

Speaking in front of tens of thousands of supporters at Democracy Park, Sam Rainsy predicted that the CNRP "will absolutely win" the election.

"I appeal to all Khmers, from all parties, the police, and the military to help rescue our nation," he said.

Sam Rainsy emphasized that he and CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha are united, urging voters not to believe smear campaigns.

"Brothers and sisters, please don't believe the incitements by rogue people that Kem Sokha and I will be divided. We cannot be bought and we cannot be divided," he said.

"Over the past 50 years, there have been many bad omens and deeds occurring in Cambodia. We have to clear them by uniting all Khmers to commit only good deeds," Sam Rainsy added.

Apparently referring to his conviction in absentia for uprooting border markers near Vietnam, he stressed that he "had not committed anything wrong at all."

The opposition leader also touched on the subject of corruption, saying it costs Cambodia "$2 billion a year" and pledging to divert money currently lost to corruption to "the development of the country and increase your salaries."

"I appeal to everyone to stop committing bad things...We have to change from a corrupt to a clean state, change from injustice to justice, change from poor to rich, from dark to sunshine, from low salary to high salary," he said.

Shouting, "Change or No Change" to supporters, the CNRP leaders also urged their supporters to "Change from No. 4 to No. 7" in the July 28 election.

The numbers refer to the party positions on ballot papers, with No. 4 being Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and No. 7 being the CNRP.

Sam Rainsy faced two suits in connection with his own controversially claimed "patriotic acts" involving sensitive border issues with Vietnam and was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison by Cambodian courts in 2011.

But Hun Sen, with the aim of promoting national reconciliation and allowing all parties to take part in the election, sent a letter to King Norodom Sihamoni last week asking him to pardon Sam Rainsy on July 12, only a few hours after Hun Sen's father Hun Neang had died of natural causes at age 90.

The king signed the pardon soon after receipt of Hun Sen's letter.

Sam Rainsy, who fled the country in 2009, had promised in early July to return home for the election even without a pardon and challenge the authorities to jail him.

Despite the pardon, Sam Rainsy's eligibility to contest a personal seat in parliament remains in doubt.

Tep Nitha, secretary general of the National Election Committee, said Sam Rainsy has no right to vote or to stand as a candidate because his name is neither on the candidate list of the CNRP nor on the voters' list of the NEC.

The election law states that registration of political parties and candidates began April 29 and was closed, without further appeal, by June 12.

Due to his criminal conviction, Sam Rainsy's name was deleted from the NEC's voting list late last year.

On the day of his pardon, Sam Rainsy said, "This is a step in the direction of Cambodian national reconciliation on the basis of democracy. My return is no more than a step on a long journey towards achieving self-determination for Cambodia."

"Free and fair elections are an essential element of any democracy worthy of the name," he added.

In a post on his Facebook page Wednesday from Paris, Sam Rainsy, who holds both Cambodian and French passports, said the "world is watching Cambodia" and that his party is supported by those "living across the continents" for a change on July 28.

He also posted a photo of a Buddhist monk blessing him in Paris shortly before boarding a plane for Cambodia.

Mu Sochua, spokesman for Sam Rainsy's return, earlier said that the opposition leader will travel and campaign in 15 out of 24 provinces and cities across the country until the election.

Eight political parties are registered for the election, but there is little doubt the CPP of Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985, will still be in power after the votes are counted.

The CPP now has 90 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the Sam Rainsy Party 26 seats and the Human Rights Party three seats.

The remaining seats are held by FUNCINPEC and the Norodom Ranariddh Party.

Cambodia holds an election every five years.