Cambodian opposition veteran lands in Malaysia saying 'Keep up the hope'
KUALA LUMPUR/PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian opposition veteran Sam Rainsy flew into Malaysia on Saturday after promising to return home from self-imposed exile to rally opponents of authoritarian ruler Hun Sen.
Rainsy, 70, did not say he would try to reach Cambodia from Malaysia after an earlier attempt to get there via neighboring Thailand was blocked when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris on Thursday.
"Keep up the hope. We're on the right track," Rainsy said on arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in a message to supporters. He had set off from Paris on Friday night.
"Democracy will prevail. Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia. Democracy will prevail in Cambodia," he said.
For decades, one-time finance minister Rainsy has been an opponent of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled his Southeast Asian country of 16 million people with an iron hand for 34 years.
Hun Sen characterized Rainsy's plan to return home on Saturday, Independence Day, as an attempted coup.
"If he comes to cause instability and chaos, we will destroy him," said Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan.
Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile in France since 2015, had originally said he planned to cross to Cambodia from Thailand with other leaders of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party.
"Even though we can't enter Cambodia today, on Nov. 9, as we planned, we can say that we achieved at least 70% of our goal," a CNRP official in Bangkok, Saory Pon, told Reuters. "You can see the intimidation, the harassment, the crackdown, the arrests."
In the weeks since Rainsy announced his plan to return, some 50 opposition activists have been arrested in Cambodia.
Police with assault rifles massed at the Poipet border crossing with Thailand on Saturday. In the capital, Phnom Penh, security forces patrolled in pickup trucks during celebrations for the 66th anniversary of independence from France.
On Sunday and Monday, Cambodia celebrates an annual water festival.
On his Facebook page, Hun Sen said he hoped people would enjoy the boat races and made no reference to Rainsy.
Rainsy said he would be in Malaysia for "a few days" meeting "like-minded friends" and would speak to parliamentarians on Tuesday. He said he would not confirm or deny any attempt to reach Cambodia from Malaysia, which has no border with Cambodia.
"We have friends everywhere, in every party so I feel at home here," Rainsy said. "Of course I want to go back to my home country."
His freedom to hold meetings appeared to mark a rapid shift in stance from Malaysia, which earlier this week had detained the Cambodian opposition party's vice president, Mu Sochua, and two other officials before releasing them.
Human rights groups have accused countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of trying to protect Hun Sen by obstructing and detaining his opponents.
A Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman, Koy Kuong, said the government respected Malaysia's internal affairs while noting that it had recently said it would not be used as a base for a struggle against any foreign country.
"Malaysia deserves kudos from around the world," said Phil Robertson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "More countries in ASEAN need to emulate Malaysia going forward if the bloc is ever going to shake the moniker of being primarily a dictator's club."
Rainsy, a founder of the CNRP who usually wears large, rimmed spectacles, 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.
Rainsy has been an opponent of Hun Sen since the 1990s, when Cambodia held its first elections after the devastating era of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Rainsy also vowed to return home in 2015 despite threats to arrest him, but did not.
The CNRP's 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.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Paris, Liz Lee, Ebrahim Harris and Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Helen Popper)
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