KUALA LUMPUR/PHNOM PENH: Self-exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy landed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, according to a Reuters witness, after promising to return home to rally opponents of authoritarian ruler Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy was blocked from boarding a Thai Airways flight from Paris to Thailand on 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.
Asked how he thought he would be welcomed in Kuala Lumpur, Sam Rainsy told Reuters on the flight:"No idea! Something between the red carpet and the handcuffs."
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government has arrested some 50 opposition activists inside Cambodia in recent weeks, has characterised the bid by Sam Rainsy and several colleagues to return and hold rallies as an attempted coup.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that if Sam Rainsy did return he would face outstanding charges against him in court.
"If he comes to cause instability and chaos, we will destroy him," he said.
In Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, security forces patrolled in pickup trucks on the day that marked Cambodia's 66th anniversary of independence from France. On Sunday and Monday, Cambodia celebrates an annual water festival.
Police armed with assault rifles lined up at Cambodia's Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Sam Rainsy had said he planned to cross, pictures posted on Twitter by the independent Cambodian Center for Human Rights showed.
"We won’t stop normal people coming in and out, we only stop rebels," national police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said.
Sam Rainsy, a founder of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (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.
Sam Rainsy, 70, a former finance minister who usually sports large, rimmed spectacles, has been an opponent of Hun Sen since the 1990s. He also vowed to return home in 2015 in spite of threats to arrest him, but did not.
The CNRP's leader, Kem Sokha, is under house arrest in Cambodia after being arrested more than two years ago and charged with treason ahead of a 2018 election that was condemned by Western countries as a farce.
The United States on Friday expressed concern over Cambodia's crackdown on the opposition.
Amnesty International denounced cooperation by Malaysia and Thailand to prevent foreign-based Cambodian opposition figures getting home.
Before Sam Rainsy's failed attempt to board a flight to Thailand, Malaysia detained Mu Sochua, his party's US-based vice president, at an airport before releasing her 24 hours later along with two other Cambodian opposition leaders detained earlier.
"We will continue our journey home," Mu Suchua said on Twitter on Saturday morning. "9 November is marked in history as our struggle for democracy."
Rights groups have accused Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand of detaining and returning critics of neighboring governments, even those with United Nations refugee status.