BANGKOK, Thailand | Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy says he will return from France on Nov. 9 to his Southeast Asian homeland, where he faces jail time of 15 years or more.
The return would renew one of the world’s longest-running political rivalries. Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since 1985, and Mr. Rainsy have tangled for more than a quarter-century, with the opposition leader twice going into extended periods of exile.
“Let us return to take back our homes, our land and our country from Hun Sen!” a defiant Mr. Rainsy told a rally of his Cambodia National Rescue Party last month in Australia, vowing to bring a delegation of party leaders and some 2 million Cambodian migrant workers with him when he goes home. “Don’t let him rob them from us.”
Not many people expect Mr. Rainsy, 70, to arrive in the capital Phnom Penh, after authorities warned they have “prepared handcuffs” for him. He has not been in the country since late 2015 to avoid what were widely condemned as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, while continuing to oversee the CNRP while abroad.
“I don’t see how Sam Rainsy braves the risks on his own and returns to Cambodia, unless he is well-protected diplomatically and well-escorted physically, like a puppet to someone,” said Chhang Song, who recently retired as an adviser to the prime minister.
Mr. Chhang, who was once information minister for ill-fated, U.S.-backed government of Cambodian President Lon Nol before it collapsed in 1975, predicted Mr. Rainsy would face a cool reception on his return.
“Though having been initially strongly popular, Sam Rainsy is an aristocrat to the teeth and is losing considerably his support from the Cambodian people as he has failed many of his promises,” he said in an interview.
Craig Etcheson, a founder of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center of Cambodia charting the abuses of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, also was skeptical in an interview that the opposition leader would actually come back.
“I do not expect that he will return,” Mr. Etcheson said. “Rainsy has publicly announced several times that he will return to face the multiple legal cases against him, but he has never actually done so without the prospect of a royal pardon” — a pardon Mr. Etcheson said was highly unlikely.
“Claiming that he will return to Cambodia does seem to cause a mild amount of turbulence inside the Phnom Penh regime, but on the other hand, repeatedly assuring his supporters that he will return and then failing to follow through may also gradually degrade both his own credibility and the esprit of his followers,” Mr. Etcheson added.
Mr. Rainsy repeatedly promised he would return home, including a no-show last September after he promised to “confiscate the ill-gotten fortune of the Hun Sen family and their cronies.”
The pending November return is timed to coincide with the national celebrations to mark Cambodia’s independence from colonial France in 1953.
Mr. Rainsy and his followers may be counting on international pressure to protect him, but the Hun Sen government has proven impervious to outside pressure in the past.
“Mr. Rainsy is a convicted person,” Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said Aug. 17. “When he returns, our authorities will implement the court order and arrest him.”
The Foreign Ministry recently told Cambodia’s embassies not to issue visas to six European Parliament members or anyone else wanting to escort Mr. Rainsy to Phnom Penh. And the government warned Mr. Rainsy’s supporters not to protect him if he arrives.
“Please do not use yourselves as shields for the convicts. It is useless,” said Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan on Aug. 18. “For those convicts, the authorities have prepared handcuffs for them.
“Nov. 9 is Independence Day for Cambodian people in the whole country. It is not a day for convicts and rebel groups,” Mr. Eysan said.
But opposition leaders say Sam Rainsy’s leadership is badly needed to challenge the government’s increasing grip on power.
“Rainsy has been very effective from outside Cambodia, but inside Cambodia, people are being arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of supporting him. The pressure on him to return has been intense,” Rich Garella, a onetime press secretary to Mr. Rainsy, said in an interview.
“It appears that he [Hun Sen] is very worried, since he is using threats and intimidation to discourage Rainsy from returning,” he added.
And Mr. Rainsy appears ready to defy Hun Sen one more time.
“I appeal to all armed forces — brothers, sons and nephews — not to listen to dictators, don’t take orders from dictators to kill our own people,” he told last month’s party rally in Australia, according to a report by Radio Free Asia.