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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Enemies, foreign and domestic

Enemies, foreign and domestic

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Former prime minister Pen Sovan at his residence in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.

An old political player speaks out about communism, justice and the country's current political trajectory.

PEN Sovan played a prominent part of the Cambodian resistance against the Pol Pot regime during the late 1970s. After rising through the political ranks, he was appointed prime minister in May 1981, but was arrested in December and imprisoned in Hanoi for his criticisms of the Vietnamese military occupation. Now a member of the Human Rights Party, Pen Sovan spoke with the Post about his experiences in power and the current political situation.

When you became prime minister in 1981, the country was still ravaged by the rule of the Khmer Rouge. What were your main priorities as leader?
The main goal was to set up a system of law and make sure that the first people who respected the law were the leaders, so that the people had something to follow. The second issue was to create a court system that was recognised by the people as a court that handed down fair justice.
Thirdly, leaders must have a clear idea what their goals are. In my time it was very clear.

You were arrested after just six months in power and imprisoned in Vietnam. What led to this turn of events?
In the past I was always opposed to foreign invaders, including the French colonists, and I had only one wish: I wanted Cambodia to have independence, freedom, democracy, territorial integrity and real sovereignty. When I became a leader in the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK), I still continued to fight for the national cause. Since then, I have gotten older, but my ideals have not changed.

The influence of [KR] doctrine is linked to trends in the current leadership.

And why did I quit the political scene? I quit politics for one reason: I did not want to see Vietnam controlling the Cambodian government. Vietnam helped to demolish the Khmer Rouge regime, but they were not honest with their help and sought to turn Cambodia into a colony. When I saw this happening and demanded that Vietnam must respect our independence, freedom, democracy and territorial integrity, they did not respect it and they are still violating this today. My struggles against the Vietnamese influence prompted some politicians who are currently in power and are allowing Vietnam to control Cambodia, to arrest me and imprison me in Hanoi for 10 years and 52 days.
What is your view on the recent crackdown on the government's critics?
The crackdown originates in the fact that the top leaders in Cambodia were influenced by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge regime only took the title of "democratic". The influence of this doctrine is linked to trends in the current leadership. They are under the sway of some of the same doctrines, which preached absolute power - not democracy.

King Father Norodom Sihanouk recently said that Hun Sen's government was the "younger brother" of his own rule of the 1950s and 1960s. Do you see any similarities between the two regimes?
I don't think the two governments are very similar. I see the regime led by Samdech Sihanouk as being led by a doctrine of royalism, under which there was a constitution that was implemented fairly. But nowadays, under the government led by Hun Sen, the constitution only exists on paper. It is not implemented for the people, and they do not know what the government has done for them. The government is not aware of the people's needs.

What made you decide to join the Human Rights Party?
Since UNTAC came to Cambodia, I have not joined any party or opposed any party. At that time, there were 20 parties who were strong on verbal commitments to enforce democracy in Cambodia, most of which were from Western countries. But I think they were only good at speaking, and that they could never manage to implement democratic ideals.... We tried to implement external laws in Cambodia, and we could not achieve it.... Khmers did not understand these foreign ideas. That's why I joined with the Human Rights Party. I have seen that [HRP president] Kem Sokha was prominent in the border resistance and has gone in a democratic direction. I have seen that his actions are good, educating people about democracy. I see that the HRP's platform is similar to the ideas I developed after I left communism.

What is your view on the Khmer Rouge tribunal? Do you think the court will achieve justice?
I don't think it will achieve much, for three reasons. Firstly, the head of government does not really want a Khmer Rouge tribunal. The second is that the court has been created 30 years after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in January 1979, which is much too late. Thirdly, the court has been disturbed by corruption, and the head of government has not allowed investigations of these allegations, so I don't think it will achieve anything.

INTERVIEW BY MEAS SOKCHEA AND SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

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