Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy touched down in Phnom Penh on Friday to a rapturous applause from his legions of supporters, who brought traffic to a standstill, showered him with garlands and demanded change at the July 28 elections.
“I missed you all so let’s go forward together,” he told a brief press conference in Khmer, packed with local and international journalists.
Local NGO Licadho (Cambodian League for the Promotion of Defense of Human Rights) estimated about 100,000 people turned out and had shut down the main road to the airport as Rainsy and his entourage boarded a convoy of black four-wheel-drives and began the arduous task of inching their way into the city.
His return marked the end of a near four-year exile, self-imposed after the courts sentenced him to an 11-year jail term in absentia for crimes that included the uprooting of markers defining the Vietnamese border which he said were illegally placed on Cambodian soil. He maintains the charges were politically motivated.
Rainsy was clearly overwhelmed by the reception, telling The Diplomat it was difficult for him to speak amid the deafening cheers and chants of the crowd while being mobbed by well-wishers.
Cambodians of all ages and walks of life braved the heat and paraded through the streets in what was by far the biggest day of campaigning for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The opposition has its best chance yet in challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen – the region’s longest serving elected leader – who pardoned Rainsy last week following months of international pressure from human rights groups, including Licadho, and the United States government.
However, Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remain clear favorites to win this election on the back of a period of unprecedented growth in the aftermath of three decades of war which ended in 1998. But the CNRP has strengthened its support base among the Kingdom’s youth voters, particularly in the capital and provincial cities by campaigning on economic management.
Land grabbing and the granting of massive economic land concessions (ELCs) to Chinese and Vietnamese companies and a burgeoning wealth gap have also dogged the CPP in recent years, alongside the perennial issue of corruption and a culture of impunity that favors the rich and politically connected.
Those issues could result in the CPP losing its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly which enables it to rewrite the constitution.
The CPP currently holds 90 seats, while the CNRP, recently forged out of a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, controls 29 seats. With Rainsy back and actively campaigning on home soil those numbers could change significantly.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.