BANGKOK - Up until last Friday, Cambodian officials were prepared to jail self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy if he were to set foot in the country.
But he said he would return to Cambodia for the July 28 general election anyway, and face the threat of imprisonment for convictions he maintains were politically motivated.
In fact, when asked recently by a France 24 channel journalist if he would one day be Cambodia’s prime minister, he replied without hesitation: “It’s a matter of months. In a few months, Cambodia will have new leaders following a democratic change.”
Such is the bravado of the 64-year-old French-educated leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, who has survived assassination attempts, criminal convictions and defamation lawsuits in his three-decade-long political career.
Last week, the one-time finance minister dodged the bullet again, through a royal pardon that lifted an 11-year jail term for charges that include altering public documents.
Mr Rainsy’s name has been removed from the electoral roll and he cannot contest in this election. But the pardon will bring him face to face again with Cambodia’s long-time premier Hun Sen, whom he has accused of corruption as well as masterminding a 1997 grenade attack at an opposition rally.
The Phnom Penh-born Mr Rainsy, whose father Sam Sary and grandfather were prominent politicians, left for France in his teenage years and made a career in the financial world before returning to his home country in 1992.
Cambodia, then recovering from genocide and civil war, held elections one year later under the watch of a United Nations transitional authority. That was when Mr Rainsy got elected as the Siem Reap representative in the National Assembly on the royalist Funcinpec Party ticket.
The outspoken politician was finance minister for over a year before he was stripped of the post and expelled from the party in 1995 for not toeing the line.
He went on to set up the Khmer Nation Party. This was later renamed the Sam Rainsy Party, which won 26 out of the 123 National Assembly seats in the 2008 election.