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CPP member and Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak (left) shakes hands with CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua at a workshop in Berlin hosted by NGO Konrad Adenauer Stiftung earlier this year. Photo supplied

Germany offers lessons to Cambodian politicians

Berlin – modern Germany offers a model of political dialogue without confrontation that the governing and opposition parties in Cambodia may wish to heed in this year of intense political campaigning.

Politicians, military officials and media leaders from across the Kingdom’s political spectrum took an opportunity recently to study the post-World War and, maybe more importantly, post-Cold War experience in Germany. The German model may be a valuable one to emulate to reduce political tensions – and avert violence – before and after the upcoming election.

Rhetoric among supporters and politicians always intensifies during every election period in Cambodia. The opposition CNRP and the ruling CPP always use insulting and sometimes warlike language against each other that can cause more serious disputes and aggravate deeper social divisions.

Germany has already learned the dangers of bellicose rhetoric and the importance of dialogue and openness – the former in the folly of World War I and genocide of World War II, and the latter during re-unification after the end of the Cold War.

Germany was once divided into East and West, with Berlin – in East Germany – divided by a concrete wall. But with the end of the Cold War and the opening of the wall in 1989, Germany was unified and adopted a democratic model based on respect for human rights, the multiparty principle and respect for free expression of citizens and a highly professional and competitive media.

The form of political dialogue in Germany is a form of listening to and respecting the voice of all parties, especially putting the public voice first. This factor of dialogue, and the pursuit of common agreement in a main route, has led Germany to become a developed and advanced country, especially in terms of mutual understanding and maintaining peace.

Rene Gradwohl, country director of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), told The Post in Berlin that for the purpose of helping ease political tensions in Cambodia, KAS had invited a group of eight Cambodian delegates to study and listen to political dialogue in the Federal Republic of Germany earlier this year. Officials from CPP’s public affairs office, the CNRP and Cambodian journalists attended the weeklong visit to Germany.

“It is very important to me to bring together representatives from the royal government, spokespersons of CNRP as well as the press as a mixed composition to study together in order to strengthen the quality of political dialogues for the interests of the public,” said Gradwohl.

Gradwohl said the idea of the programme was that Germany wants to give the Cambodian “influencers” exposure to Germany to understand the dialogue system by providing an opportunity to talk directly with the experts from various institutions in Berlin and see if it could be reflected in Cambodia.

Gradwohl added that another purpose of this visit is to bring together various Cambodian political actors to meet in a context other than at home.

He emphasised that “they did not only talk with each other but also had lunches and dinners together, which was an opportunity for them to know each other personally, which generally could reduce the dialogue tension”.

“If they never meet and talk with each other, they will fight with strong rhetoric through the media,” he said.

One positive result from the visit in Berlin was that two politicians from different parties who have never trusted each other – CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua and Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak of the CPP – managed to chip away, if only partially, the distrust between themselves.

“I think that the dialogue between the two politicians seemed to be, in a way, reluctant and not trusting [of] each other at the beginning due to a high level of mistrust between each other,” Gradwohl said. “As you have been aware, the two persons have never known each other personally, but they just talked against each other in the media. But I am happy when they started to talk to each other [in Germany]. Valuing each other is an investment in building trust between persons as well as institutions.”

Khieu Sopheak, the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior, who represented the government in the trip, told The Post in Berlin that Cambodian delegates have to see the value of political dialogue based on mutual respect. He also praised the rhetoric of opposition party activists in Germany, which he said was dignified compared with the language often used by Cambodian opposition politicians.

“[Germany] uses a language that is easy for people to understand . . . not just promises without truth,” Sopheak said. “Generally here they promise the voters that they will continue to develop the country even more. They do not speak ill of other parties or intend to denigrate someone down or tell people that when they come to power, they will remove this person and keep that person.”

According to Gradwohl, despite the initial chill, the opposition politicians and government officials finally seemed to talk to each other with mutual respect.

Sopheak acknowledged he was reluctant at the beginning to speak to Sochua, but after spending days in close proximity, finally they spoke to each other easily.

“I thought when we had meals together, I almost did not dare to speak to her at the beginning and she almost did not dare to speak to me too, but as we are the same Khmer, I respected her as she was Khmer,” Sopheak said.

Sopheak emphasised his stance “that nothing is a barrier to smiling at each other”. “Smiling at each other is not wrong as long as we do not act against any law of the royal government, [but there is no law that] prohibits smiling.”

The 63-year-old spokesman, who has more than 20 years’ experience in public affairs, said: “We have to remember that every meeting and every expression is not an enemy. This is the principle of democracy, meaning that one wants korko soup, one wants proher soup, one wants fried beef, one wants toek kroeung . . . but they are the foods that everyone wants. If we are not able to get those foods we must make a joint effort to eat something temporarily.”

Sochua also told The Post that she was happy to talk closely with the spokesmen of the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Justice. Sochua said her feelings before and after the study visit were worlds apart, and after a week together overseas, everything was different from her initial thoughts.

“We respect each other as Khmer, and speak to each other in the language of democrats. We did not forget that our stance in leading the country is different, we don’t forget, it is very clear, but we respect each other,” she said.

The opposition lawmaker said she had expected for many years to eventually have such a political dialogue, and now had one witnessed by the press.

“[I] had never known him before, but just knew that he was the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior. He speaks strongly against the CNRP, speaks strongly against me. But I thought that one day I would meet Khieu Sopheak, with respect”.

She added that “over the past five or six days, we went to the gym together, had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. I saw his behaviour and words as the words of a highly educated person with dignity, respect. He loves his country in his mind. He suffers and we also suffer.”

Ouk Kimseng, spokesman for Ministry of Information who was also on the study trip, said he was surprised by the behaviour of Sochua, whom he said was friendly and understanding. He said Sochua has been keen to develop communications through public affairs, which promised to help avoid misunderstandings.

“For me, I have never communicated both privately and officially with Her Excellency Mu Sochua, but for this trip I saw that she was happy for an opportunity to meet with government officials,” Kimseng said.

Sopheak also said he had learned another lesson from the German opposition parties: though they may want to take power from the previous regime, it is to build the country, not to vent their temper and ambition.

“I see that in Germany, there are also opposition parties, but what the opposition parties in Germany did is in the framework of real democracy,” he said. Nonetheless, Sopheak appeared to maintain a level of mistrust even after the weeklong thaw in relations.

“The opposition party in Germany does not depend on foreigners to pressure the ruling party like the opposition party in Cambodia,” he said. “We see that every opposition party speaks ill of others too, but it is different from our opposition party, which wants to cut open Cambodia’s chest to show foreigners.”

Indeed, it might be a while before Cambodia’s own wall comes down.

Kay Kimsong is the editor-in-chief of Post Khmer

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