Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy has returned home to a rousing welcome after four years in self-exile, vowing to "rescue" the country from corruption and harsh rule if his party wins upcoming national elections.
Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), knelt and kissed the ground at the Phnom Penh airport on arrival from France as he was greeted by thousands of flag-waving supporters chanting, "We want change."
"I am now with the Khmer people, with you all to rescue our nation," the 64-year-old charismatic politician and fiery speaker told his supporters through a microphone. "When we all come together everything is possible. I'm happy to be here."
From the airport, Sam Rainsy headed in a convoy to the Democracy Square in Phnom Penh, where he spoke to tens of thousands of people—one of the largest crowds for a political event in the capital where the CNRP is popular.
Sam Rainsy, who has been living in France since 2009 to avoid a 11-year prison term for what he calls politically-motivated offenses, was granted a royal pardon by King Norodom Sihamoni on the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen a week ago.
However, Sam Rainsy is ineligible to run for office in the July 28 elections because the registration of candidates has long been closed and his name has been removed from the electoral register, according to the National Election Committee (NEC), the body that manages the country's elections.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, had suggested this week that Hun Sen pave the way for Sam Rainsy to run in the elections.
He said while the royal pardon granted to Sam Rainsy was an important step towards reconciliation, it was hoped that Hun Sen's government would "take the necessary action" in order to allow the opposition leader "to play a full part in the national politics of Cambodia.”
Sam Rainsy has accused the NEC of being controlled by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), saying he would push to get his name back in the electoral rolls and become a candidate in the polls.
The CPP has won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities. Hun Sen's administration has been accused of rampant corruption and suppressing political freedom.
His party has held power for 28 years, and holds 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament. Hun Sen has said he would try to stay in office for another decade, until he is 74.
With about a week left for polling, Sam Rainsy will hit the election campaign trail immediately covering a dozen provinces, his party said. Police have pledged to provide him adequate security protection.
Rights groups say Cambodia's electoral system is facing major problems, including issues over voter registration lists, the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for the CPP, government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation against opposition figures and civil society monitors.
While Sam Rainsy's return has given a shot in the arm to the opposition, the rights groups are concerned that Hun Sen's administration may move to thwart the opposition campaign.
"The deck is heavily stacked every day in Cambodia against anyone who dares to oppose Hun Sen," Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told RFA.
He said the CPP has openly said that if it loses the election, there will be civil war, suggesting possible CPP-instigated violence against the opposition and its supporters.
"So the risks of violence are real and Rainsy and his supporters are extraordinarily brave to demand their rights and contest the election," Robertson said.
"But that effort has merit, because it contains the continued hope for a rights-respecting, truly democratic Cambodia in the future along the lines anticipated by the Paris Peace Accords, and an end to the dark nightmare of systemic rights abuses under Hun Sen’s rule."
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements signed by the United States and 17 other nations laid out the process for ending decades of conflict in Cambodia and building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.