Sam Rainsy, Cambodia‘s self-exiled opposition leader, has landed in the Malaysian capital after promising to return home to lead an uprising against longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Keep up the hope. We are on the right track,” Sam Rainsy said in a message to his supporters, after arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Saturday.
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“Democracy will prevail. Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia. Democracy will prevail in Cambodia.”
The 70-year-old founder of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) previously said he wanted to return to his homeland on November 9, Cambodia’s Independence Day, along with other opposition figures to trigger a popular movement to force Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than three decades, from office.
But the Cambodian government has characterised the bid as a coup attempt against Hun Sen and has sought support from neighbouring countries to prevent the opposition leaders’ return.
On Thursday, Sam Rainsy said he was denied permission to board a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok in Paris, the French capital where he has lived since 2015.
A day earlier, the CNRP’s deputy leader, Mu Sochua, was briefly detained after arriving in Kuala Lumpur. Shortly after her detention, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters his government could not let the Cambodian opposition “use Malaysia as a base for struggle in other countries”.
He cited the policy of non-interference in neighbours’ affairs in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which both Malaysia and Cambodia are members.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, meanwhile, has said he would not let Sam Rainsy into the country. The CNRP leaders had said they would return to Cambodia through the land border with Thailand.
When asked at the Kuala Lumpur airport if he planned to return to Cambodia, Sam Rainsy declined to comment but described his visit to Malaysia as a private one.
“I do not deny, I do not confirm,” he said.
He also said he has been invited to meet Malaysian legislators in the country’s parliament on Tuesday.
In Phnom Penh, Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Cambodia’s government, told Reuters news agency that Sam Rainsy would face outstanding charges against him in court if he did return.
“If he comes to cause instability and chaos, we will destroy him,” he said.
Cambodian authorities have stepped up security ahead of Independence Day, deploying large numbers of troops on Saturday in the capital as well as to the border with Thailand.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, praised Malaysia for letting Sam Rainsy into the country.
“Malaysia deserves kudos from around the world for letting Sam Rainsy enter the country and meet with his colleagues,” he said. “Respecting basic human rights is not hard. In contrast to repressive Thailand’s clampdown on the Cambodian exiles, Malaysia has shown there is another, more rights respecting way to proceed.”
Vanna Hay, the CNRP’s deputy secretary-general, who is in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera he was being followed in the city and was concerned for his safety. Al Jazeera could not verify the report.
Saory Pon, the CNRP secretary-general, also said dozens of the party’s activists have been harassed in Thailand’s capital.
“Police stopped 31 people in three incidents in the way [to the border]. They searched them and questioned them and told them not to go to the border,” he said, promising to continue the party’s efforts against Hun Sen.
“They confiscated our 55 parliament seats and 5,007 local commune council seats elected by the people, and dissolved our party,” he said, referring to the Cambodian government’s decision to ban CNRP following a strong showing by the party in local elections in 2017.
“There is no other option besides standing up together with the people and demanding real democracy.”
Meanwhile, several legislators from the United States and the European Union have urged Hun Sen to allow CNRP members to return.
“We are deeply concerned by comments from the Royal Cambodian Government, which have threatened and condoned acts of violence against these individuals should they return,” read a letter by eight US legislators to Hun Sen on Friday. “We condemn all forms of political violence in Cambodia,” the politicians said, calling for opposition parties to be allowed to operate freely in the Asia Pacific country.