Opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned to Phnom Penh on the morning of Feb 10 after more than a year in exile, calling the moment a new page in Cambodia’s history and denying that he fled the country last year.
After being hoisted on the shoulders of his supporters and with garlands hung round his neck, the opposition leader was then driven on the back of a pick-up truck from Phnom Penh International Airport toward the party headquarters, where he addressed a small but cheering crowd of about 500 supporters.
“I didn’t run away. I had to reorganize the party, I had to reorganize the forces that are available to the party inside and outside the country,” Sam Rainsy told reporters.
“I am very happy to be back…. I think Cambodia is approaching a new stage of its history, a new page of history is opened today.”
Sam Rainsy fled the country on Feb 3, 2005, after the National Assembly voted to strip his parliamentary immunity.
He secured his return after writing a conciliatory letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen that was aired on television earlier this month, expressing regret for accusing him of orchestrating a March 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful protest led by Sam Rainsy.
“I declare that we are keeping our own stance, even if there were threats of death, we are not afraid. Even if they have millions of dollars to buy our senses, we will not sell out,” he said.
Hundreds of supporters accompanied Sam Rainsy to the party headquarters on motorbikes, along with busloads of flag-waving party loyalists.
Members of the public stood at the side of the road and watched the procession, though they did not display the type of widespread enthusiasm shown for Sam Rainsy prior to the 2003 national election.
Im Malen, a wheelchair-bound mother of five disabled in the grenade attack, was waiting for Sam Rainsy beneath the shadow of a tree inside the party compound.
“I was affected by the grenade attack, and now I am a disabled person. Me and my son were injured,” the 56-year-old said.
“I came to meet him. I want him to find justice,” she added.
More than a dozen people were killed and 120 injured in the attack on a peaceful demonstration led by Sam Rainsy outside the National Assembly.
Asked whether he would continue to seek justice for the victims, Sam Rainsy replied: “Justice for all Cambodians,” though he added that he has decided to put aside past incidents.
“I walked one step to be near Samdech Prime Minister, and Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen stepped toward me,” he said. “This is a new culture.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Feb 10 that the government welcomes Sam Rainsy’s return.
“[We] hope we can cooperate and work together to develop the country,” he said. “You can be an opposition party without adopting a hostile attitude.
“Without an opposition party you’ll have some bad guys in the government with a free hand…an opposition party can be the whistleblower,” he said.
Asked if Sam Rainsy could enter a coalition government following the 2008 election, Khieu Kanharith replied: “Up to now we don’t have this idea.”
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said he would be happy to meet with the opposition leader.
“I would like to welcome the return of Mr Sam Rainsy today and if Excellency Sam Rainsy wants to meet with me…I would see him in my capacity as the president of the National Assembly,” the prince told reporters outside the National Assembly building.
Sam Rainsy has expressed regret to Prince Ranariddh for accusing him of accepting bribes to form the coalition government. That allegation, along with the one against Hun Sen, led to Sam Rainsy’s Dec 22 conviction in absentia to 18 months in prison for defamation. He was pardoned on Feb 5.
The royalists may now cooperate with the opposition for the country’s sake, the prince said.
“Since I have a good alliance with Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen, so far I have no intention to make an alliance with the Sam Rainsy Party. But it is possible that we work together for the sake of the nation in the framework of the National Assembly, the Senate,” he said.
Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association recently freed after being jailed on defamation charges, was waiting at the airport to greet Sam Rainsy.
He said that fleeing Cambodia was a legitimate move, as Sam Rainsy could not have expected a fair trial in Cambodia. “He did not trust the judicial system…. If it was independent, he would have faced justice here,” Rong Chhun said.
Despite Sam Rainsy’s conciliatory statements concerning the grenade attack, Rong Chhun said he did not believe the case was closed.
“The 1997 grenade attack case is not finished yet. I hope that there are people who will investigate and will find the killers,” he said.
Noun Sarak, a 42-year-old opposition party supporter and farmer from Prey Veng province waiting at the airport, said he believed Sam Rainsy will now go on to win the national election in 2008.
“We as a people—the whole country—trust Sam Rainsy,” he said.
Khoun Sour, 45, a motorbike taxi driver and opposition supporter, said the opposition is right to be moving closer to the government.
“The opposition is still going to carry on. But [it] has to work with the government,” he said.
“If the opposition always stays on the outside it is meaningless.”
(Reporting by William Shaw, Kay Kimsong, Lor Chandara, Prak Chan Thul and Whitney Kvasager)