KUALA LUMPUR: Cambodia’s exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy arrived in Malaysia Saturday as he sought to return home to rally his supporters against strongman Hun Sen, while security was beefed up at the kingdom’s borders and in Phnom Penh.
Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail for convictions he says are politically motivated, has long promised a dramatic return on November 9, Cambodia’s Independence Day.
But Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has vowed to bar him and other exiled figures from his party — which was outlawed ahead of much-criticized elections last year.
Dozens of activists have been rounded up in recent weeks in Cambodia while the authoritarian leader has called on neighboring countries to help thwart the opposition’s attempts to return for what he has described as an attempted coup.
After being barred in Paris Thursday from getting on a flight to Thailand, Rainsy boarded a plane a day later and arrived at the main airport serving the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
A beaming Rainsy told his supporters to “keep up the hope” as he arrived, and that he was determined to get home.
“We are on the right track,” Rainsy, a founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told reporters at the airport.
“Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia, democracy will prevail in Cambodia.”
Malaysians ejected a corruption-plagued government that had ruled the country for over six decades in a historic election last year, and voted in a more reform-minded alliance.
The former finance minister and arch-rival to Hun Sen hopes his backers — including among the armed forces — can unite to topple the government and restore democracy to the poor Southeast Asian nation.
Still, the likelihood of him making it back to Cambodia appears slim. Neighboring Thailand’s premier has indicated he will not let Rainsy transit through the kingdom and observers believe he will first need to secure a deal with Hun Sen.
The strongman was not taking any chances, however.
In the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, dozens of riot police were deployed while army trucks lined the main road to the international airport.
Security was also ramped up at Thai-Cambodia border city of Poipet — seen as the most likely crossing point for Rainsy and other opposition figures if they try to come by land — with roads barricaded and lines of armed police standing guard.
Deputy of the now-dissolved CNRP, Mu Sochua, was also detained when she arrived in Malaysia this week following a request from Cambodian authorities but was released after less than 24 hours.
Malaysian authorities have indicated they will not forcibly deport her to Cambodia but she has until next week to leave the country.
The CNRP had been viewed as Cambodia’s only serious opposition before it was dissolved by a court in 2017 ahead of elections the following year.
That paved the way for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party to win all 125 parliamentary seats, turning the country into a one-party state.