Almost four years after he fled the country to escape criminal charges, opposition leader Sam Rainsy will kiss the ground and salute the national flag when he arrives home to thousands of jubilant supporters today, his party said yesterday.
No longer 10,000 kilometres away in the refuge of Paris and no longer a wanted man, Rainsy will step off a flight from Bangkok at about 9am and straight into his first Cambodia National Rescue Party campaign duties on home soil.
Rainsy’s arrival won’t be as a candidate — his name remains stricken from the National Election Committee voter list — but the anticipation that has preceded his return, coupled with his reputation as probably the only household name in the opposition party, makes it likely this election campaign will reach another level in coming days.
Mu Sochua, one of a number of CNRP senior figures stripped of their lawmaker status in controversial circumstances last month, said Rainsy will arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport with his deputy, acting party president Kem Sokha, alongside him.
“Kem Sokha will lead a small delegation from Bangkok,” she said. “At the airport, they will be greeted by senators and members of parliament such as Yim Sovann … and [union leaders] Rong Chhun and Chea Mony.”
Having the two leaders side by side — just like in the party’s propaganda posters that stand tall across the country — will be a pre-planned show of unity to the hordes of photographers and reporters awaiting them.
Rainsy’s plans to show his love for and commitment to Cambodia seem just as well thought out.
“When they get off the plane, Rainsy will come in front of the VIP building, kiss the ground and salute the flag,” Sochua said.
The CNRP predicts 20,000 people will be waiting for Rainsy, who was granted a Royal pardon last week, at or near the airport. The number of faithful waiting to greet their party leader at Freedom Park later this morning could be much higher, said Ho Vann, a CNRP candidate for Phnom Penh.
“It will be crowded … We estimate at least 70,000 people will be in and around the area,” he said.
But Rainsy, whose party requested a Royal audience for him this morning, will not meet with King Norodom Sihamoni today, but will do so at a later date, Sochua said.
Since fleeing the country in September 2009 after being charged with uprooting border posts he claimed encroached on Cambodian territory in Svay Rieng province, Rainsy has remained a central figure in the Kingdom’s politics, albeit from afar.
Although the Cambodian People’s Party has played down the significance of Rainsy’s return, the CNRP is adamant that it will attract a huge amount of voters before the ballot on July 28.
Sensing a need to make the most of their leader’s popularity, Rainsy will leave tomorrow on a tour of 15 provinces the party believes it can win.
But as supporters began returning to the streets yesterday after a generally quiet week of campaigning, opinions of passersby varied on what Rainsy’s return meant.
Sien Sophal, 56, a security guard, said he believed the popularity of Rainsy remained strong.
“And there’s more understanding of the election this time, especially among students. The opposition, in the form of the CNRP, has widened its campaign,” he said.
Sophal added he believed Rainsy’s return would help his supporters stand up to the government and stop “hiding their faces”.
Ta Mab, 50, a motodop from Kandal, said he was more interested in the huge steps forward the government had made in developing the country’s infrastructure since 2008.
“The opposition party always promises things, but can’t deliver,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, Lor Vathanak Sambath, 38, a tuk-tuk driver, said many people just wanted a peaceful country.
“I would like to request that people don’t fight after the election result is announced. [We need] peace so people can continue their business as usual.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR