Nearly nine months after he left his homeland, deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh returned to Cambodia on Monday to be greeted by hordes of well-wishers and a heavy police presence.
“I feel a sentiment of intense happiness to be back to see all of our people, not only from Funcinpec’s side but also the common people,” Prince Ranariddh told reporters at the Hotel Le Royal, shortly after his arrival from the airport.
And he paid “homage” to those who played a role in securing his return—in particular, his father, King Norodom Sihanouk.
“I am very grateful to His Majesty the King of Cambodia for granting me the royal pardon, without which I would not be able to stand before you today,” the prince said.
Much of the Phnom Penh diplomatic corps turned out on the tarmac to applaud the returning prince, who arrived with his wife, Princess Marie Ranariddh, on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok.
As expected, no official government welcoming party was present, and there was no red carpet for the prince to walk on as he advanced toward the crowds of photographers and supporters at the terminal.
Police and soldiers ushered the prince and his entourage of party officials and diplomats toward a convoy of cars that whisked them to the Hotel Le Royal in the city center.
Along the road to the airport, thousands of ordinary citizens cheered the four-lane motorcade on the journey to the hotel. A thousand more supporters outside the hotel gates greeted the prince with placards and applause, cheering as he and his wife appeared on a second floor balcony, waving and blowing kisses to the crowds.
At the hotel, the prince thanked the international community and individuals for their help in trying to solve on the journey to the hotel. A thousand more supporters outside the hotel gates greeted the prince with placards and applause, cheering as he and his wife appeared on a second-floor balcony, waving and blowing kisses to the crowds.
There, he thanked the international community and individuals for their help in trying to solve the ongoing political crisis in the country.
The prince also vowed to work with all political forces to see that elections are held as scheduled in July.
“I am ready. I am here to work together with all organizations, all countries, but also political parties…including CPP—I would say mainly with the CPP—in order to achieve our immediate goal, which is the elections…[which] have to be to be free, fair and credible,” Prince Ranariddh proclaimed.
He also paid his respects to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen for assisting in his return. The prince added that a diplomatic and UN delegation would deliver Hun Sen two messages on his behalf, one thanking him for his cooperation and one requesting a meeting between the bitter political rivals.
“I am available anytime to see him if he so desires it,” he said. “I have to say that we should not talk about the past, we should not talk about everything bitter, but we have all together to talk about the future. The immediate future is about the elections and what happens after the elections. We have to think in a positive way.”
While stressing the importance of holding the elections July 26, the prince acknowledged there was still work to be done before conditions were right for the polls to take place.
“My presence today is maybe necessary but not sufficient to have free, fair and credible elections and we have to secure it all together,” he said.
“Prince Ranariddh is back, but it is not enough. Those who are outside the country must be allowed…to come back to participate in the elections,” he added. About 60,000 refugees who fled factional fighting in the northwest of the country are still sheltering in camps on the Thai border.
The prince was scheduled to meet Monday with Funcinpec steering committee members, UN officials and diplomats.
Over the next four days, the prince is scheduled to meet with diplomats and representatives of other organizations, including the National Election Committee.
The prince told reporters his schedule was flexible and that there was “no deadline” on when he would return to Bangkok.
The prince was accompanied on his flight by a party of diplomats and international representatives, including the UN secretary general’s representative in Cambodia, Lakhan Mehrotra, and Brazilian Ambassador to Thailand Arnaldo Carrilho.
On the flight, the prince told Agence France-Presse that he was “apprehensive” about returning after so long in exile.
“When you are absent for nearly nine months you can’t help having feelings of apprehension,” he said.
“I was in exile because of a coup, my father was in exile because of a coup, but all the time we came back,” he said, referring to his father’s deposition as head of state in 1970 and the subsequent five years he spent abroad.
In a statement issued on his return, the prince vowed to work to unite his fragmented party, Funcinpec, in preparation for the upcoming elections.
“From now on I shall work hard to gather, reunite and reinforce Funcinpec, which remains one of Cambodia’s major political forces,” the statement said. (Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)
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