Exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy inched closer to returning home on Wednesday after Prime Minister Hun Senlifted an order barring his entry to Cambodia, challenging Mr.Rainsy to make good on vows to risk imprisonment—or death—by coming back and winning the premier’s post in next year’s election. Mr. Rainsy threw down a challenge of his own in response.
“I will be back in Cambodia soon when all obstacles to my safe return and freedom of movement are cleared,” Mr. Rainsy said, citing hurdles including any “that have been illegally or unfairly put in place in order to prevent my participation in any elections in Cambodia.”
The former CNRP president fled the country in November 2015 amid a slew of legal challenges widely seen as politically motivated that has only grown in his absence. His exile was formalized in October, when the Council of Ministers issued an edict that seemed to defy international law in ordering immigration officials and airlines to bar him from entering the country or boarding Cambodia-bound flights.
Mr. Hun Sen reversed the order on Wednesday, according to a letter signed by Teuk Reth Samrach, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, though there was nothing in the letter to suggest an end to Mr. Rainsy’s legal woes. The reversal was “entirely” in response to an interview Mr. Rainsy gave on Tuesday to Radio Free Asia in which he mocked Mr. Hun Sen’s cowardice and urged him to lift the ban, according to CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, who claimed not to know whether Mr. Rainsy would be arrested upon arrival.
“We cannot make the right prediction until he arrives at Pochentong,” he said, using an old name for the Phnom Penh International Airport. “We will wait and see together.”
He added cheekily: “Cambodia Daily, help broadcast to make him come back soon.”
In the RFA interview, Mr. Rainsy panned the commune elections atmosphere as unfair, predicted his party would win next year’s vote and repeated his regular promise to return before then.
“I dare to do everything,” he said. “I’m willing to be jailed. I’m willing to die in order for the nation to survive.”
“I will return and let them do whatever to me, but have to have the guarantee that the nation survives, guarantee that foreigners stop invading,” he added, in a thinly veiled reference to alleged illegal Vietnamese immigration.
Mr. Rainsy also goaded Mr. Hun Sen, repeating his regular proclamation that he was the only man who could go head-to-head with a prime minister who feared his return.
“Mr. Hun Sen is scared of me, scared of my name, scared of my voice, scared of my shadow and doesn’t allow me to compete with him,” he said.
Barring a royal pardon stemming from a political deal, it remains unclear how Mr. Rainsy would overcome the growing pile of convictions from cases that largely stem from past provocative comments, including a five-year prison sentence last year over a video posted on his Facebook page that cites an allegedly fake border treaty with Vietnam and another 20 months in March for claiming the state orchestrated the July killing of political analyst Kem Ley.
Mr. Rainsy’s path to becoming prime minister is further complicated by the newly amended Law on Political Parties that forced his resignation in February. Those changes empowered the government to temporarily suspend and ultimately dissolve any party whose leader holds a criminal record.
“If there is no request to the king for a pardon, the implementation of the law is still the implementation of the law,” said Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry. “The decision of the executive power cannot overpower the decision of the court.”
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said the question of the arrest was out of his hands.
“What the law states, [we] will follow that,” he said.
Senior members of the opposition party could only speculate on when Mr. Rainsy might return and how he might untangle himself from the legal woes.
Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice president, said Mr. Rainsy’s first step was to return in time to register to vote later this year. His exiles and eventual reconciliation with the government had become such regular occurrences that Ms. Sochua seemed to lose track of them, describing a hypothetical return as “at least the third time” he will have made it back.
“We will work toward a solution,” she said. “We have not accepted any deal. But Mr. Rainsy has said on Wednesday that he is coming home.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the party’s steering committee, said the decision was entirely up to Mr. Rainsy and that there was “no easy answer” to his dilemma.
But the prince said if it were up to him, Mr. Rainsy should wait until the months and weeks leading up to the election to return, even if that move wouldn’t allow him to run as prime minister.
“His coming back would allow the CNRP to have more popular support,” he said.
Markus Karbaum, a German political scientist with a focus on Cambodia, said it was too soon to say whether the lifted ban was “an indicator for rapprochement or a trap for Sam Rainsy.”
So long as Mr. Hun Sen’s order was in place, Mr. Rainsy “could easily blame the government,” Mr. Karbaum wrote in an email. “Now, it depends purely on him and his courage whether he wants to return.”
Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, described Mr. Hun Sen’s decision as a “good move” that opened up the possibility of a deal with the opposition to broker Mr. Rainsy’s return—but only on the prime minister’s terms.
“He wants more than credibility,” Mr. Virak said. “Any deal that Hun Sen signs is one that gives the CPP an upper hand.”