Sam Rainsy gets to KL but no further
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Sam Rainsy gets to KL but no further

Phnom Penh says opposition leader is now free to return but he will have to face 'justice'

Sam Rainsy greets supporters after arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia on Saturday. (AP photo)
Sam Rainsy greets supporters after arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia on Saturday. (AP photo)

The Cambodian government has reversed its ban on the return of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, saying he can return as an ordinary person but will have to face due justice.

The announcement came a few hours after Sam Rainsy arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday afternoon, saying he remained determined to return to Cambodia to rally support against the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

While his attempt to return to Cambodia later in the day as planned was thwarted, he said he had a "duty" to try again soon.

The co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faces imprisonment in Cambodia for convictions on charges that he maintains are politically motivated, with charges on other offences pending.

Sar Kheng, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, announced the shift in the government’s stand on his Facebook page on Saturday.

Calling Sam Rainsy a culprit and a convict, he said: “As of now, there is not any announcement by the Cambodian government to bar culprit Sam Rainsy and his colleagues from entering the country.”

The announcement followed the completion of Independence Day celebrations, which went ahead without incident amid heavy security. The government had expected opposition supporters to attempt to disrupt the event.

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where he was taken aside briefly by Malaysian immigration authorities, Sam Rainsy told reporters that he had been invited to the Malaysian parliament on Tuesday as part of a private visit.

He told reporters that he would be in Malaysia for “a couple of days”.

“I want to go back to my home country,” he said, while declining to say how he plans to do so.

Sam Rainsy boarded an Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight on Friday night, a source told Kyodo News.

Earlier, he had posted a message on his Facebook page saying, “Sam Rainsy boards a plane in Paris today for another destination” with an accompanying photo showing him standing on an airport boarding bridge with carry-on luggage.

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur, he refused to disclose his plans but said, “I will go back home, it is my right, it is my duty.” He said the opposition was “on the right track” and would “keep up the hope we will win”.

Sam Rainsy had been blocked on Thursday by Thai Airways from boarding a flight from Paris, where he lives in exile, to Bangkok. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, chanting the mantra of Asean non-interference, made clear the opposition figure would not be allowed into Thailand.

Hun Sen, whose government has arrested some 50 opposition activists inside Cambodia in recent weeks, earlier characterised the bid by Sam Rainsy and several colleagues to return and hold rallies as an attempted coup. Security has been tightened on both sides of the Thailand-Cambodia border to prevent any attempts by opposition figures to cross.

Mu Sochua, the deputy chief of the CNRP, is also in Kuala Lumpur. She issued a call on Friday for her compatriots in Cambodia to take to the streets on Saturday.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that if Sam Rainsy did return he would face outstanding charges against him in court.

“If he comes to cause instability and chaos, we will destroy him,” he told Reuters.

In Phnom Penh, security forces patrolled in pickup trucks on the day that marked the 66th anniversary of independence from France.

Police armed with assault rifles lined up at the Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Sam Rainsy had said earlier that he planned to cross.

Cambodians were prohibited from crossing from Poipet to shop in the Rong Klua market in Thailand, effectively shutting down the normally bustling exchange in Sa Kaeo province, according to a Thai Rath report.

At the Poipet checkpoint in Cambodia opposite the Ban Khlong Luek permanent crossing in Aranyaprathet, Thais and foreigners were allowed to cross the border normally despite extensive checks. 

Cambodian officials explained the ban was temporary. All types of vehicles are also banned from going through the border by the Cambodian order. 

Cambodian immigration officials also met with Thai soldiers on Saturday. They asked for Thailand’s cooperation in stopping any anti-government groups from staging protests.

Thai officials promised they would not allow foreigners to use the country as a base for sedition.

Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia four years ago following a conviction for criminal defamation. He also faces a five-year sentence in a separate case. He says the charges were politically motivated.

The 70-year-old former finance minister has been an opponent of Hun Sen since the 1990s. He also vowed to return home in 2015 in spite of threats to arrest him, but never did so.

The current CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is under house arrest in Cambodia after being arrested more than two years ago and charged with treason ahead of a 2018 election that was condemned by Western countries as a farce.

Before Sam Rainsy’s failed attempt to board a flight to Thailand, Malaysia detained Mu Sochua at the Kuala Lumpur airport before releasing her 24 hours later along with two other opposition leaders detained earlier.

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