KUALA LUMPUR/PHNOM PENH • Self-exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy landed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur yesterday, after promising to return home to rally opponents of authoritarian ruler Hun Sen.
"Keep up the hope. We are on the right track," Rainsy, 70, said on arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in a message to supporters. "Democracy will prevail. Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia. Democracy will prevail in Cambodia."
Rainsy said he would be in Malaysia for "a few days" meeting "like-minded friends" and speak to parliamentarians on Tuesday.
He would not confirm or deny any attempt to reach Cambodia from Malaysia, which has no border with Cambodia.
"We have friends everywhere, in every party, so I feel at home here," he said. "Of course, I want to go back to my home country."
The veteran opposition figure had planned to return to Cambodia yesterday, on Independence Day, in what Prime Minister Hun Sen characterised as an attempted coup against his rule of more than three decades.
But Rainsy was blocked from boarding a Thai Airways flight from Paris to Thailand last Thursday.
He and other leaders of his banned opposition party have said they want to return to Cambodia by crossing the land border with Thailand. "Even though we can't enter Cambodia today on Nov 9, as we planned, we can say that we achieved at least 70 per cent of our goal," Mr Saory Pon, an official of Rainsy's banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Bangkok, told Reuters. "You can see the intimidation, the harassment, the crackdown, the arrests."
Cambodia's government said there was no ban on Rainsy returning, but it described him as "convict Sam Rainsy" and said it would take action against anyone posing a threat to state security - an accusation it has already laid against him.
"The return to the country of the convict Sam Rainsy and his faction as Cambodian citizens is unimpeded," Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said on Facebook.
"But the Royal Government of Cambodia has also announced the right to take legal action against any actions that attempt to undermine peace, social stability and security of the state."
Some 50 activists have been arrested in recent weeks.
In Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, security forces patrolled in trucks on the day that marked Cambodia's 66th anniversary of independence from France.
Police armed with assault rifles lined up at Cambodia's Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Rainsy had said he planned to cross, pictures posted on Twitter by the independent Cambodian Centre for Human Rights showed.
Cambodia celebrates an annual water festival today and tomorrow.
Rainsy, a founder of CNRP, fled four years ago following a conviction for criminal defamation. He also faces a five-year sentence in a separate case. He says the charges were politically motivated.
Rainsy, a former finance minister who usually sports large-rimmed spectacles, has been an opponent of Mr Hun Sen since the 1990s.
In 2015, he also vowed to return home in spite of threats to arrest him, but never did so.
The United States last Friday expressed concern over Cambodia's crackdown on the opposition.
Before Rainsy's failed attempt to board a flight to Thailand, Malaysia had detained his party's US-based vice-president, Mu Sochua, at an airport before releasing her 24 hours later, along with two other Cambodian opposition leaders detained earlier.