Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return for Cambodia poll
In exile since 2009, Sam Rainsy announces he will arrive this week ahead of July 28 election after strongman PM arranges royal pardon
Cambodia's self-exiled opposition leader announced yesterday that he would return to his homeland this Friday, less than two weeks before his beleaguered party challenges entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen in national polls.
Sam Rainsy announced the date of his intended return on Facebook a day after Hun Sen engineered a pardon for his most prominent rival. Fellow party members gave the same date.
The pardon cleared the way for Sam Rainsy to return to campaign for his Cambodian National Rescue Party without facing immediate arrest and imprisonment.
It came after the United States and others had said the exclusion of Sam Rainsy from the July 28 vote would call into question the polls' legitimacy. His return is not likely to affect the big picture at the polls greatly, where Hun Sen appears assured of extending his 28-year rule.
The US welcomed the pardon, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying Washington called on the Cambodian government "to facilitate a safe environment for his return and allow for his meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections". The US statement also urged reforms recommended by a United Nations rights expert to ensure free and fair elections.
In a statement, Sam Rainsy thanked the king for his pardon, and said he knew that he had "never done anything wrong".
"I would have returned even in the absence of a pardon to highlight the condition of democracy in my country. My return is no more than a step on a long journey towards achieving self-determination for Cambodia," he wrote.
He criticised the official election body as unsupportive of democracy: "The mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia."
The campaign can be expected to be fairly rambunctious. Sam Rainsy is often sharp-tongued in his rhetoric, and his party has been drawing large crowds of enthusiastic young people.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party has the resources of the state behind it, and in the past has been accused of intimidation and force against its opponents.
However, the first shots from the two bitter rivals were an exchange of niceties, as Sam Rainsy conveyed his condolences over the death of Hun Sen's father this past week.
Hun Sen thanked him in a letter, and added: "I hope that you will return in the nearest future to join political life again."
Sam Rainsy has lived abroad since 2009 to avoid 11 years in prison on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned him on Friday at Hun Sen's request.
Hun Sen's letter requested the pardon "in the spirit of national reconciliation [and] national unity and to make sure the national election process is conducted under the principle of democracy, with freedom and pluralism and jointly by all involved parties".
The pardon came shortly after Sam Rainsy declared that he planned to come back before the election, which suggests a deal may have been worked out.
Though Sam Rainsy is seen as the sole Cambodian politician with the charisma and resources to present any real challenge to the well-entrenched prime minister and his party, Hun Sen is still expected to win in a landslide.
Still, a return would provide at least a morale boost for Sam Rainsy's party, which has been greatly handicapped by having its leader absent.