AMID what was probably the most electric atmosphere of the 2013 national election campaign thus far, thousands of people on motorbikes converged on Kandal province’s Takhmao town on Friday night to hear self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy deliver his first public speech since his pardon hours earlier.
For the most part, the Cambodia National Rescue Party rally was half pop concert – replete with heavy rock riffs, disco beats and altered versions of Gangnam Style – and half comedy-sketch show.
But for the nine or so minutes that Rainsy’s face beamed out from giant screens and he talked to an expectant crowd via a Skype connection, it was overtly political – and the crowd of mainly young people was at fever pitch.
Rainsy inspired the already vocal audience with election rhetoric, but left many disappointed by not revealing his immediate plans to return.
“Don’t worry, I will meet all of you soon in Phnom Penh,” he said.
The CNRP announced the next morning that Rainsy, whom it says has been in France, will return to the Kingdom this Friday.
But for those in the crowd expecting Rainsy to proudly declare last Friday night the exact time and date his plane would touch down, the uncertainty that lingered after his speech was too much to bear.
“Why did he not focus on when he’s coming back here?” asked a monk.
A number of other CNRP supporters were convinced Rainsy had a seat on a SilkAir flight from Singapore and they had planned to be at Phnom Penh International Airport on Saturday afternoon to meet him.
A CNRP official and former lawmaker who asked not to be named told a Post reporter at the rally that Rainsy was dealing with passport issues and was in Singapore – but other party officials have since denied this was the case.
In an email Friday, Rainsy said he was “most grateful to King Norodom Sihamoni” for granting him a pardon – which means he will not be arrested if he comes back to campaign before July 28’s national election. He previously faced the prospect of years in prison.
Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando, speaking on stage later, repeated the familiar battle cry “Change or not change?” to the fervent crowd, before speculating on what life under the opposition might be like.
“If the CNRP wins this election, everything will change. Don’t fear a war, because the CNRP loves peace,” he said. “We’ll change from bad to good, from difficulty to success.”
Thousands of people on motorbikes – primarily youths – flooded into the streets of Takhmao town in the late afternoon and evening.
The sheer number streaming back to Phnom Penh after the rally suggested a large percentage of them were city-dwellers.
Kong Buna, 25, an economic management graduate from Build Bright University in Phnom Penh, said he had been inspired by news that Rainsy was returning. “I was so happy when I heard that the King had pardoned Sam Rainsy and when he claimed he was coming back to Phnom Penh soon,” he said.
“I hope the CNRP wins the election – if the NEC can be trusted to allow it to win – and the new government resolves all the problems of the youth and of poor communities.”
Unemployed, Buna said he hoped a new government could create jobs for people like him.
During his Skype chat, Rainsy made a plea to people like Buna, encouraging youths especially to vote July 28.
“I heard that about 10,000 youths are gathering in Takhmao town and some authorities have blocked them,” he said. “But don’t worry; I will meet all of you soon.”