PHNOM PENH— The Cambodian government announced Friday that opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy has been pardoned and is free to return to the country ahead of the general election scheduled for July 28.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Prime Minister Hun Sen had sent a request for a royal pardon to Cambodia’s king early Friday. The assent of the king, a constitutional monarch, is a formality.
The spokesman said the pardon is to promote national reconciliation and followed a formal pardon request Sam Rainsy sent to the King last month.
Speaking from Paris, where he has spent most of the past four years in self-imposed exile, Sam Rainsy said he was pleased at the news.
“I am happy not only for myself but mainly for Cambodia - this is a sign, an indication that we are moving in the right direction: the direction of national reconciliation, of national unity without which Cambodia cannot achieve democracy and cannot achieve true development,” he said.
Sam Rainsy had previously said he would return to Cambodia before the election despite an 11-year jail term hanging over him. At the time he had said he was prepared to go to jail - a position, one analyst commented, that risked turning him into a martyr.
His convictions in 2010 stemmed from two court cases, both of which relate to Cambodia’s contentious border with Vietnam. The bulk of the sentence was for disinformation after he showed off a map whose borders the government said were wrong. Rainsy’s supporters have long denounced the episode as politically motivated.
Sam Rainsy’s return will thrill supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the coalition of key opposition parties formed to contest the election. The group remains the only serious challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
It will also come as a relief to those among Cambodia’s foreign donors who - Sam Rainsy suggested - had been involved in trying to broker a solution.
“Actually I have written to the foreign ministers, secretaries of state representing many countries that were the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia. So I think all of them have contributed to this happy end,” he said.
Questions remain on election
As a consequence of his conviction, Rainsy was also stripped of his parliamentary seat and was banned from running in the election. So does the pardon mean he will now be allowed to take part?
“So far not, unless they reverse some of the very arbitrary decisions that the electoral commission has made on political grounds,” he said.
The key remaining question is when Sam Rainsy will return. He plans to travel on his French passport, however it has expired and the French authorities are processing a replacement. Rainsy said he should receive it next week, and hopes to be back in Cambodia soon after.
However, he added, his return would not resolve a number of election-related issues, chief among them being the composition and the leadership of the National Election Committee.
“The electoral commission is not neutral, the electoral commission is a political tool for the ruling party to win any election even before voting day. So my return does not solve those problems,” he said.
Those problems, Sam Rainsy said, must be resolved too should Cambodia wish to be seen as holding elections that the wider world will view as free and fair.