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Cambodian opposition leader returns amid tension

July 19, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Thousands of cheering supporters on Saturday greeted Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on his return from a trip abroad, at a time when political tensions are high because of the arrests of eight of his party colleagues.

His return came less than a week ahead of the anniversary of last year’s contentious July 28 election, which his Cambodia National Rescue Party claims was rigged. Its lawmakers have boycotted their seats in the National Assembly and are demanding reforms and new elections.

While the opposition leader’s return and the upcoming anniversary add volatility to the situation, Sam Rainsy said he expected to negotiate with Prime Minister Hun Sen to resolve their differences.

Tensions over the yearlong political deadlock were ramped up this past week when seven lawmakers and another party activist were arrested after violence broke out when party members sought to stage a demonstration at a park authorities had closed to them. The lawmakers were charged with insurrection and other offenses, which could see them jailed for up to 30 years.

“I hope that there will be new talks,” Sam Rainsy told reporters upon his arrival at the airport. “I hope that there will be resolution — a solution that ends the (political) stalemate.”

Both the opposition party and Hun Sen said in April that they were close to settling the deadlock, but no deal was made at the time. While there has been no public sign of detente between the two sides, Hun Sen announced later that he would accede to one of the opposition demands, and allow them to operate a television station.

Initially on Saturday, the possibility of a fresh street confrontation loomed, as Sam Rainsy said at the airport that he would head to the area of Tuesday’s confrontation, Freedom Park. He said he wants the venue reopened as soon as possible so that people could exercise freedom of expression.

But in an evident change of plan, his motorcade — after stopping briefly outside the main government complex — went to party headquarters instead of the park, where riot police were deployed.

Hun Sen has been in power for almost three decades, and while Cambodia is formally democratic, his government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents. Sam Rainsy is his most enduring opponent, and his party’s strong showing in last year’s polls — even according to the disputed official results — posed the strongest challenge to Hun Sen in many years.

The latest arrests drew criticism from human rights groups and Western governments. The violence was unleashed Tuesday when local security guards used by authorities to break up protests began attacking the demonstrators, who fought back. The government claimed that at least 38 security personnel were injured.

Sam Rainsy said Saturday that he would seek his colleagues’ release.

Demonstrations in the capital were banned in January and Freedom Park sealed off after a wave of vociferous protests.

The EU and the U.S. State Department both called for the opposition officials to be released and for Cambodia to lift its ban on demonstrations.

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