KUALA LUMPUR – Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrived in Malaysia, making partial progress in his quest to return to his home country to try to oust long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Although he failed to make it to Cambodia on Saturday — the country's Independence Day — he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, "I will go back home, of course. It is my right. And also my duty."
Hun Sen's authoritarian government has vigorously opposed the return of Sam Rainsy and fellow members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party and declared they would be arrested immediately if they made it onto Cambodian soil.
In a video posted Saturday morning before he boarded a flight from Paris, Sam Rainsy told supporters: "Our victory is getting nearer and nearer. The change of regime through the democratic means will soon arrive and be accomplished."
In what may be a possible turnaround in the Cambodian government's position, its influential deputy prime minister and interior minister, Sar Kheng, said on his Facebook page Saturday, "As of now, there is not any announcement by the Cambodian government to bar culprit Sam Rainsy and his colleagues from entering the country."
Sar Kheng said Sam Rainsy — who has several convictions with prison sentences to serve along with charges pending for several other alleged offenses — can return as an ordinary person but will have to face due justice. Sam Rainsy considers the legal actions political persecution.
It was unclear if Sar Kheng's Facebook post represents government policy. Cambodia's long holiday weekend runs through Tuesday.
Sam Rainsy spoke to reporters briefly on his arrival in Kuala Lumpur, saying he had been invited by Malaysian lawmakers to meet with them on Tuesday. He declared that his visit was private and that he was grateful to the Malaysia authorities.
His comments appeared to sidestep the issue of whether he was interfering with Cambodia's internal affairs while on Malaysian soil. Malaysia and Cambodia are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which maintains a policy of noninterference in each other's affairs. Malaysia and Thailand have both hindered the free movement of opposition party leaders, drawing criticism from human rights groups.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said earlier in the week that Malaysia doesn't want to be used as a base for political activists or interfere in the affairs of other countries.
"Keep up the hope. We are on the right track. Democracy will prevail," Sam Rainsy said. "Democracy has prevailed in Malaysia, democracy will prevail in Cambodia. We look up to Malaysia as our model to strengthen democracy in a peaceful way."
In Cambodia on Saturday, Hun Sen and constitutional monarch King Norodom Sihamoni attended a celebration ceremony at Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, the capital.
Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party have a stranglehold on power, which was ensured when Cambodia's high court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party in late 2017 for allegedly treasonous activities.
The action was seen as a political ploy to ensure victory by Hun Sen's party in the 2018 general election by eliminating the only credible opposition group. Sam Rainsy's party had mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge in 2013 elections.
But he and his colleagues face an uphill battle.
An effort Sam Rainsy made Thursday to fly from Paris to Thailand — Cambodia's western neighbor — was thwarted when Thai Airways refused to let him board. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had said earlier that he would be barred from entering Thailand.
Inside Cambodia, scores of opposition supporters have been arrested in the past few weeks.
Security in Phnom Penh was heavy and especially high Saturday at the border checkpoint at Poipet in the country's northwest, where Sam Rainsy and his top party leaders had announced that they and their supporters would be crossing from Thailand. Traffic to the checkpoint as well as across the border was limited, with Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand reportedly barred from entry.
Other top party members fled into exile after the 2017 crackdown on all opposition to Hun Sen, which also included the shuttering of virtually all critical media and the arrest of the party's other co-founder, Kem Sokha. He was charged with treason, based on his links to a U.S. pro-democracy organization, and is under strict house arrest.
Peck reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Eileen Ng in Hong Kong contributed to this report.