PHNOM PENH/NEW YORK -- Self-exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has promised to return home to lead an uprising against the three-decade rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has entered Malaysia.
Sam Rainsy was witnessed by a Reuters reporter just after 3:30 p.m. local time on Saturday at Kuala Lumpur International Airport after a flight from Paris, where he has been residing.
A co-founder of the court-disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy had vowed to reenter Cambodia on Saturday -- almost four years after fleeing abroad to evade arrest in a case widely seen as politically motivated. In preparation for any unrest, Cambodia's military has mobilized on its borders and near airports.
Cambodia's government also appears to have reversed its hard line on Sam Rainsy entering the country. Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng wrote on Facebook on Saturday that he can return unimpeded as an ordinary person, while vowing to take any necessary legal action.
Should he return, Sam Rainsy faces prison time linked to several cases brought in his absence, all widely seen as politically motivated. He and several colleagues also face charges of armed rebellion for their return plan, which could earn them jail terms of 15 to 30 years.
Sam Rainsy told reporters at the airport he had been invited to meet Malaysian parliamentarians on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.
"Keep up the hope. We are on the right track," he told supporters, according to Reuters.
It still remains unclear, however, how Sam Rainsy and his entourage will enter Cambodia -- a country with which Malaysia has no land border. Plans to enter via Thailand were shot down earlier this week by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who said Sam Rainsy would not be permitted in the country.
On Thursday, Sam Rainsy said he was blocked from check-in at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport for a Thai Airways flight scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on Friday morning.
Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review earlier on Saturday, senior CNRP member Mu Sochua, who arrived in Malaysia on Wednesday and was detained by immigration authorities for 24 hours before being released, declined to give specifics about the group's plans, citing safety concerns.
"We are not stopping," she said. "We will continue our struggle."
The U.S. State Department expressed concerns Friday over Hun Sen's efforts to keep Sam Rainsy from entering the country.
"We are deeply concerned by the recent expanding series of arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the Cambodian political opposition and by efforts to thwart the return to Cambodia of citizens seeking peaceful participation in the political process," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement, calling such efforts "an escalation in suppression of the political opposition."
On being blocked from boarding to Bangkok on Thursday, Sam Rainsy tweeted a video interview in which he told a reporter that "they said they have received from very high up the instruction not to allow me to board. ... This must be Hun Sen, Cambodian dictator," who put pressure on neighboring countries.
In a Friday Facebook post accompanied by a picture of him with a suitcase, Sam Rainsy said he was boarding a plane in Paris to "another destination."
Hun Sen has made clear that he would have Sam Rainsy arrested upon entering the country. He also declared in September that the government had sent arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy to other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Malaysia "deserves kudos" for permitting Sam Rainsy to meet with his colleagues.
"Respecting basic human rights is not hard; it simply requires the kind of political commitment that Malaysia has shown today," he said.
"In marked contrast to Thailand's repressive crackdown on the Cambodian exiles, Malaysia has show there is another, more rights-respecting way to proceed. More governments in ASEAN need to emulate Malaysia if the bloc is ever going to rid itself of its reputation as a rights-abusing club of recalcitrant dictators."
In Friday's statement, the U.S. State Department said it is "consistent in our support for the respect of fundamental freedoms and human rights and the reopening of political and civic space in Cambodia."
"We urge all parties to engage in a peaceful, inclusive process of national reconciliation in order to restore a genuine multiparty democracy and fundamental freedoms, as enshrined in the Cambodian constitution," it said.