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The return event

The return event

THEY started gathering before 9am in the park opposite the National Assembly. Moto

drivers, students, vendors, passersby, and garment workers, all keeping at least

a stone's throw from the area in front of the assembly where four grenades were tossed

at a demonstration eight months ago.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the memories of that day, the gathering grew. They

waited cautiously, nervously, tentatively. But fear was not enough to keep them away

from the arrival of the man who led that fateful rally.

Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy had announced that he would return home on

Nov 27 - his first visit back since the July fighting - and invited one and all to

join him for a ceremony to commemorate those killed in the March 30 attack on a KNP

rally.

Among those waiting for his return to the massacre site was factory worker Nhek Bury,

who was very conscious of the potential danger.

"Some of my companions at the garment factory were killed and wounded here,"

said Bury, who came with a group of colleagues.

"Most of us garment workers like Sam Rainsy because he always helps us when

we are the victims of violence," she said, eyeing nervously the scene around

her.

While some garment workers were afraid to return to the site, she said, others bore

the risk to welcome Rainsy in gratitude for his support in the past.

"Before I received $35 per month, but when His Excellency Sam Rainsy came to

talk to the factory owner, my salary increased to $45 per month and I sometimes receive

overtime money," said another worker. Before Rainsy became involved, she said,

money was deducted from workers' salaries when they went to the toilet.

A palpable buzz of anticipation grew, along with the size of the crowd. By 10:30

- Rainsy's scheduled time of arrival - about 400 people were gathered some 70m from

the assembly.

A 32-year-old doctor at Sihanouk Hospital, who moonlights as a moto-taxi driver,

said he was there because the KNP president had tried to stop illegal loggers and

government corruption before being fired as finance minister. "I send all my

hope to His Excellency Sam Rainsy," he said excitedly.

At Pochentong airport, Rainsy was arriving. He was met on the tarmac by BLDP MP Son

Chhay, a representative from the office of the UN Secretary-General, and a handful

of human rights officials, although there were none from the UN Center for Human

Rights' office in Phnom Penh.

Soon after, a sleek black BMW 520i pulled up in front of the National Assembly, some

10 feet from where one of the grenades exploded. The car door opened and out stepped

the highest profile self-exile to return to Cambodia.

Sam Rainsy was back in town.

People swarmed across the park. Hundreds of smiling students, monks, vendors, students

and elders, some running and others on motorbikes, bore down on the KNP president,

to touch him and hug him. A crush of journalists shouted out questions. Rainsy held

out his hands; his fans applauded repeatedly.

It was a far cry from the images of March 30 - bodies lying amid bloody rubble on

the sidewalk - but the memory was brought back as Rainsy and a group of monks offered

prayers for the souls of the dead. After incense was lit, more people reached out

to touch or hug him and reporters began to ask him questions

Rainsy called for a cease-fire and asked soldiers to lay down their arms. The people

applauded. Rainsy said he would do his best to take the KNP into elections. More

applause.

"I'm so happy to see him that a tear fell out of my eye when I shook his hand,"

said a 60-year-old woman. She said she supported Rainsy's activism against the judiciary,

because her family was forced off their land by corrupt court officials.

A moto-taxi driver said that most of the people had come after hearing of Rainsy's

return from Voice of America radio, while others found out through word of mouth.

"I came here by myself. Nobody forced me. I'm not afraid of another grenade

attack," he cried as he lit incense.

"The Khmer people are not stupid any more," said a woman next to him. "They

will not be cheated again."

The following day, Rainsy announced that he would again take up the cause of garment

workers. Speaking at a press conference, Rainsy said he would represent garment workers

by offering them free legal advice. In the ensuing days, he organized a series of

gatherings of laborers to discuss strategies to improve their plight.

Of his political future, Rainsy declared that he is not greatly concerned about the

dismantling of his party apparatus, such as KNP party signs and offices, as that

had only strengthened the beliefs of his followers. "They should carry signboards

in their hearts."

If the run-up to elections becomes a farce, he said that he will not hesitate to

boycott the elections, but he said that it is far too early to make such an assessment.

But it was, it seems, a subdued Rainsy in action at the press conference, avoiding

his trademark strongly-worded attacks on the alleged crimes of Hun Sen and his CPP

comrades. "The tiger has become a pussy cat," murmured one observer.

But before long there was still a bit of old-fashioned claim and counter-claim with

the government. Rainsy said he intended to start a KNP radio station. "Can you

name any country in the world where political parties are allowed to have their own

radio stations?" responded Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith

Dec 2, dismissing Rainsy's request.

Rainsy said he would continue to look at ways to get a radio station and, in the

meantime, would try to meet with people from around the country. He intended to start

with a Dec 4 day-trip to Kompong Cham, to be observed by the UN, and has also sought

permission from the municipality and the Interior Ministry for a march for peace

through Phnom Penh on Dec 7.

As he was planning his events, Rainsy noted a perculiar change in the political climate

in Phnom Penh. He had even heard Hun Sen on the radio praising him for his courage

to return to Cambodia. "It was so strange," Rainsy mused.

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