Cambodian opposition says founder to end exile in November

Cambodia's popular but disbanded opposition party says its self-exiled co-founder will make his long-promised return to the country in early November

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Cambodia's popular but disbanded opposition party said Friday its self-exiled co-founder will make his long-promised return to the country in early November.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party, dissolved by court order in November 2017, said in an emailed announcement that Sam Rainsy and other party leaders will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, which is the country's independence day, marking when it obtained its freedom from France in 1953.

Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 to avoid a two-year prison sentence on charges of criminal defamation. Other legal cases have since been lodged against him by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, his bitter enemy, who has held power for more than three decades.

Other top party members fled into exile during a late 2017 crackdown on all opposition to Hun Sen, which included the arrest of the party's co-founder, Kem Sokha. He was charged with treason, based on his links to a U.S. pro-democracy organization, and is under strict house arrest.

The party had been expected to mount a strong challenge in the July 2018 general election, and its dissolution was widely seen as being politically motivated, with Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party fearful that it could lose power in the polls.

Plans for Sam Rainsy's return had been announced months ago, and recently a September date was abruptly canceled.

There are fears for his safety because of the political threat he poses to the government. In 1997 he was the apparent target of an assassination attempt when grenades were thrown at a small protest rally he was leading at a park in the center of the capital, Phnom Penh. He escaped serious injury, but at least 16 people were killed and many wounded.

For safety's sake, his party sought to have politicians from other countries accompany him on his return, but when the names of some sympathetic Europeans were made public, the government ordered that they not be issued visas. Officials have vowed to arrest Sam Rainsy on his arrival, but there is speculation that Cambodia may simply bar him from entry, which could even keep him from boarding a plane to the country if airlines are officially informed of such a move.

Although Sam Rainsy is arguably his country's most popular politician, his time in exile has muddied the situation for his supporters after he has vowed several times to return and then not carried it through.