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Cambodian Opposition Leader Returns From Exile after Royal Pardon, Political Truce

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has returned from more than a year in self-imposed exile, saying he hopes to put his differences with Prime Minster Hun Sen behind him, and open a new chapter in political cooperation. At least some political analysts are skeptical the truce will last.

Sam Rainsy worked his way through a crowd of supporters Friday morning at Phnom Penh International Airport. It was his first time on home soil since he fled more than a year ago, after the lifting of his parliamentary immunity made him vulnerable to criminal defamation charges brought by the leaders of Cambodia's ruling coalition.

He was convicted in absentia, and sentenced to 18 months in prison, but a truce between him and Prime Minister Hun Sen led to a royal pardon several days ago. On his return, Sam Rainsy said he would like to meet the prime minister, to whom he apologized last week after accusing him of masterminding a deadly grenade attack on an opposition rally in 1997.

"I am in favor of dialogue," said Rainsy. "Therefore, I will meet with everybody."

Government and opposition officials say Sam Rainsy's return is a sign of national reconciliation. But some local rights groups and political analysts are skeptical.

Koul Panha, director of the political watchdog Committee for Free and Fair Elections, does not expect the truce to last. He said the two former opponents are likely presenting a united front at the moment, because an international donor meeting is scheduled to take place next month, and foreign aid fuels more than one half of Cambodia's budget.

"It's a very short-term show, " said Panha. "It's not stable, or have any methodology clear how to work together, compromise like that. It really depends on the environment, or the intervention of the international community."

Sam Rainsy was convicted of defaming both Hun Sen and the National Assembly president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whom he accused of accepting bribes in return for forming a coalition government with Hun Sen.

Rainsy fled to France when his parliamentary immunity was lifted, and spent a year trying to drum up international support. But last week, a settlement was reached, as part of which, Sam Rainsy sent his letter of apology to the prime minister.

The pardon was part of a broader political truce, prompted by charges from human rights groups and foreign governments that Hun Sen's attacks on his political opponents were endangering Cambodia's fragile democracy.

Sam Rainsy was pardoned, along with opposition politician Cheam Channy, who spent a year in prison for forming a shadow Cabinet that the government declared an illegal army.

The two pardons came just after the government also dropped defamation charges against seven activists who had criticized Hun Sen for signing a controversial border agreement with Vietnam.

Sam Rainsy told his supporters he was happy to be able to return to the work of reorganizing his Sam Rainsy Party.

"I didn't run away," he said. "I had to reorganize the party. I had to reorganize the forces that are available to the party inside and outside the country. But now I am very happy to be back."

Officials have said the National Assembly will soon re-instate Sam Rainsy's parliamentary immunity.