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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'The poor, the ordinary people are fed up'

'The poor, the ordinary people are fed up'

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Editor's note: With four months to go to the general election, scheduled for

July 27, the Post has requested to interview senior members of the three major

parties - the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), its royalist coalition

partner Funcinpec, and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). The Post is

awaiting responses from the CPP and Funcinpec to our interview

requests.

Sam Rainsy: ëThe only true royalist party is the SRPí.

What has changed politically and socially since your party

became the opposition?

We have had a difficult task, but have faced an

exciting challenge - to push the government to go in the right direction, or at

least to prevent the worst abuses.

The situation is not good in Cambodia.

We know about poverty, human rights violations, corruption, environmental

destruction. Without the opposition, I think the situation would be

worse.

Looking back on the past five years, the changes the SRP have

helped bring about are not visible - instead they are changes in the mentality

of people.

People have learned to think, they have learned to be more

critical, they have learned to protest. I think this is the biggest contribution

the SRP has helped to bring to this country.

Now there are demonstrations

nearly everywhere, everyday. But I am not involved - I do not need to be

involved personally, because the people handle their protests themselves. They

get their voices heard. The government and the donor countries now start to take

into account the feelings of the people who protest.

In summary, the SRP

has helped bring about a change in the mentality of people. Before change

becomes visible, change has to take place in the minds and in the hearts of

people first. At the very least I am very proud to have contributed to

this.

But are you concerned that protesting has become more dangerous

since the Thai riots?

Yes. In our capacity as representatives of the

people, as members of parliament, we must defend the rights of the people. Next

time there is a threat against the right to demonstrate, then if necessary,

there will be SRP MPs who will go to ensure rights are protected.

We are

not satisfied with the present situation. When the liberties and freedoms

enshrined in the Constitution are not respected - for instance the right of

association. There are principles stated in the Constitution, but there are no

implementing laws. So we have to fill the vacuum as soon as possible, like the

law on association, like the law on decentralization.

[As regards

decentralization] the village chiefs who were appointed by the ruling party [in

the 1980s] are still there. We want the new village chiefs to be selected and

appointed democratically by the commune councils, which were elected last year.

What is missing are instructions on the procedures from the Ministry of

Interior. We have written to the government three times asking why they have not

issued them. They are blocking the situation, which means the laws are not

respected.

How much difference will that make to the SRP's campaigning at

the village level? Is it set to be a problem?

Yes, a major problem,

because the village chief is the real boss. The commune is a little bit further

away. The commune is made up of two, three, sometimes more than ten villages,

which are scattered, and the life of the village is centered around the village

chief.

He can control justice, security, the organization of the village.

He oversees the ten house village cells, the communist-type cells. They know

that this family has raised the SRP sign, his neighbor supports his friend, this

is the family of this guy.

When voting day comes, they will transport

their supporters to the polling stations. But the SRP supporters are poor, they

don't have means to get transport, so there is discrimination.

When money

is involved, we are not equal. Nowadays the village chief has many hats - he has

the hat of the CPP, he has the hat of the village chief, and he has the hat of

the election officials.

So this election is biased since the very

beginning. Had the village chiefs been changed according to the law in the wake

of the commune elections, things would be much different. But it is not too late

- there are four months to go. They drag their feet not to allow any change of

village chiefs.

This is why I call on the donor countries who financed

the local elections - what is the use of the local elections, but then you don't

even care that the results of the elections are implemented properly?

You

have your party congress on March 28 and 29: Will there be more defections from

Funcinpec?

We manage the defections in waves, because the psychological

effect must be repeated periodically. Approaching the election there will be

more defections, then in the last days before the election there will be the

most important defectors. We want to make the biggest impact in the last

days.

Does that imply there are bigger fish to come?

Yes, much

bigger fish. There will be more, and of high rank. The psychological effect is

in the timing and the ranking of the people who join us. So we have to manage

the timing and the ranking. The closer to the election, the higher the

ranking.

As regards the King's half-sister, Princess Norodom Vacheara -

there have been persistent rumors she will defect and be made number one on the

SRP ticket in Phnom Penh.

I don't want to make any comment. I don't want

to confirm or to deny. It is up to the concerned person to proclaim their stance

when he or she thinks it is appropriate.

Looking at the election strategy

for the SRP: What are your plans over the next four months?

The strategy

is first to welcome Funcinpec, which is disintegrating. So we have to come up

with schemes and arrangements and formulas where the best elements who want to

continue to serve the country can feel comfortable they can do it with the

SRP.

The strategy is to show that Funcinpec will disappear from the

political scene. Maybe they will still have some presence in 2003, but in 2008

they will be no longer on the political scene.

Our strategy is to show

the only asset Ranariddh uses to cheat the people is that he represents [King

Norodom Sihanouk]. We are going to come up with messages from the King saying

that Funcinpec is not the King's party.

To summarize Ranariddh's speeches

- the only thing he says that attracts people's attention is that if you like

the King, vote for Funcinpec. So we have to counter this by using selected

statements by the King saying Funcinpec has nothing to do with the

King.

[There was] a statement by the King [in his recent monthly

bulletin]: When Ranariddh said that he believed Funcinpec would still be a

leading party, the King wrote in his bulletin "rêve", which means "dream". He

said: Don't dream. Only one word and the King discards this pretension of Prince

Ranariddh.

There is no doubt the royalist vote is a drawcard,

particularly in rural areas where most voters live. That would make getting

someone of the stature of Princess Vacheara into the SRP fold that much more of

a bonus.

The second message is that the only true royalist party is the

SRP, because Prince Ranariddh has contributed to tarnish the image of the

monarchy ... by his association with a regime that has caused corruption, human

rights abuses, immorality. This does not serve the monarchy, does it?

The

SRP will concentrate on what we have in common with the monarchy. It will be an

important element to have some royals with us, but I don't mention any names -

just as a principle saying the real royalists, including some of the best royals

themselves, are with the SRP.

And the SRP will in its platform commit to

defend, to uphold and to increase the prestige of the monarchy.

The main

strategy will be improving living conditions through social justice and the

fight against corruption. The most important issue in this election is how to

improve living conditions. People are poor, people are hungry. People are

waiting for who will address the poverty problem, and bring food and basic

necessities. There my main competitor is not Funcinpec, it is the

CPP.

The CPP says it wants to address poverty. We want to address poverty

- only the means differ. They will address poverty through donations. The poor

have to rely on the CPP for donations and handouts. We have another message: We

say that this gift comes from corruption money, a little left that they

distribute to you. We say: Take it, this is your money ... but vote for justice,

vote against corruption.

That means ... go to vote with your brain, with

your heart, because with justice your living conditions will improve faster and

more permanently, and your dignity will be re-established.

We have to

educate people about the real alternative - that these donations are not a real

solution. It is putting the country back on its feet, ensuring better

governance, promoting social justice, curbing corruption, bringing in more

competent people.

I know it is a difficult task. Not everybody will

follow us in this reasoning, but if half of the people follow us it would be

enough. If only one-third do, it will be a great change. And I think people will

understand this message.

How can we counter the [CPP's] force of money?

We have to use the force of ideas. Hun Sen says: If you vote for me, I will

build an extra road, an extra bridge. We have to counter that. This is not a

donation from Hun Sen, this is the government's job. Any government should do

that.

How many seats do you hope to win?

To have one-third [of the

seats] at the National Assembly, we need 42 seats out of 123. But in fact for

the NA to convene, they need a political party with 37 seats to cooperate. So

with 37 seats we would have a say in any decision by the future

government.

With 42 seats we definitely will be part of the government.

So this is the minimu,.m, but we expect to be able to achieve a better result. I

do not exclude working with some elements of the CPP to be part of the next

government.

So does your strategy include working with the

CPP?

The SRP is willing to work with the CPP. My appeal is that please,

CPP, don't consider SRP as your enemy. We can work together. We have many things

we share.

There is common ground for us to work together. Maybe some CPP

elements would reject that, then let them reject it. But if there are some CPP

who accept my proposal, my overture, then I would be glad to work with

them.

We are in a politically tense time now. How much worse have things

become since the beginning of the year for you and SRP members?

I am very

concerned that as the election approaches the intimidation will increase,

because they see this trend [of SRP support] is like a snowball effect. They

want to break the snowball, and if they cannot break the whole snowball they

will do whatever they can to prevent it from growing.

That is why I

launched an appeal to observers to come now. There are new methods, new tricks,

of neutralizing the SRP. They target the best elements of the SRP, the most

popular, the most efficient, the most effective. Suddenly they find themselves

accused by the CPP of involvement in some crimes.

And your personal

safety?

I think that will depend on the last day. They will not kill me

now, but when they see the snowball getting bigger and rolling over their heads,

then they will consider. Now is not the moment. The SRP is not that dangerous

yet. Many things can happen - there can be internal problems within the SRP;

Funcinpec can be given more means to distribute donations. Now they can contain

it, but they know there is a trend that could be dangerous.

You regularly

say you won't work with Hun Sen, but how can you avoid working with him after

the election?

The CPP has to resolve its internal problems. The CPP will

have to choose who will be its candidate for prime minister. I will take into

account the CPP decision. But I have said I would prefer to work with a new

leader, a new figure. I think dialog, cooperation, would be much better than

with Hun Sen, because Hun Sen represents a system that has failed. Why should we

insist to keep a system that has failed? We have to change the system.

Do

you think Hun Sen will quit?

Ask Saddam Hussein whether he would like to

step down. Ask him ten years ago, he would say no. Ask him five years ago, he

would say no. Ask him two weeks ago, he would say no. But ask him in two weeks,

the situation will be much different.

Hypothetically speaking, if after

the election the SRP is in a position to form a coalition with the CPP and Hun

Sen refuses to step down, will there be a political crisis, and who will solve

the problem?

I am amazed - I am not blaming you - but I am amazed by the

mentality of people who say Hun Sen is immovable, that he has to be in the

picture forever. He is not God. Only God is eternal.

But everyone seems

to be afraid Hun Sen does not want to step down, that he will be here all the

time. People who think like that are prisoners, until things change and suddenly

they will say: 'My goodness, yes. What should have happened a long time ago has

at last happened.'

Currently people are so rigid. I see so much rigidity

in the minds of people ... that Hun Sen has to be there all the time. If you are

really exceptional, maybe you can be there a long time. If you are Lee Kuan Yew

making Singapore the second-most developed nation in Asia, then

maybe.

But what is the achievement of Hun Sen to be eternal? Half of

Cambodia's forest has been destroyed, it is one of the poorest countries in

Asia, the mortality rate is among the highest, corruption is rampant. What is

the achievement to be so grateful to Hun Sen that he must [remain]?

Why

will people vote for the SRP?

People are fed up. The poor, the ordinary

people are fed up of living in poor conditions. Hun Sen has been in power for 18

years; the people have been poor for 18 years. When they hear the words

'progress' and 'development', they say: 'Those words are for other people, not

for us.'

They want a change. Usually people are fatalist, but after a

certain period of time and with the young generation - I count on the young

generation - they are not fatalist. They see the shortcomings of the government,

they see the abuses, the injustices. They see an alternative. They know in other

countries you can prosper because of competence. They want a society based more

on merit than on affiliation.

In the young people this force can only

grow. Every year 220,000 people reach the age of 18. Since the last national

election [in 1998] there are more than 1 million in an electorate of 6 million.

Next election 2008 you will have nearly one-and-a-half million more.

When

I base my assessments it is not on abstracts. I look at the social changes. One

is demographic trends, more and more young people. They think differently from

their fathers and grandfathers. Their expectations and judgments are different.

The second is social, which covers many aspects. One is urbanization. In

the city information circulates and people understand faster and are less afraid

than those living in isolated villages in the countryside.

Another is

education: If you go to school and you can read and write ... you can get more

information. Another is better roads and better telecommunications. This works

in favor of democracy.

What are your best and worst case scenarios for

the number of seats?

We have 15 seats [from the 1998 election]. Then we

were not organized, our network did not reach the commune, not even the

district. We were in the big cities and we got 15 seats. But now our network

goes down to the village. So it is totally different from 1998.

Another

example: In 1998 we had 800 party signs all over the country. Now we have 5,000

and by the election we will have 8,000. All the main villages will have one

party sign, which means we have one family supporting the SRP. But in the

village if you have one family supporting the SRP, you have relatives, you have

neighbors, you have friends.

So from 15 seats, how far are we going to

move? There are two types of provinces. There are eight provinces and

municipalities with only one seat, so that is very difficult to win a seat, you

have to be the number one party. There are 15 provinces with three seats and

over.

In the smaller [of these] provinces we expect to have one seat. In

the medium-sized provinces we could expect to have two more seats. In

medium-sized provinces with six seats, [another] two. In the large provinces we

can get up to three seats [extra].

Actually we aim for one-third. In

Phnom Penh we will move from four seats to minimum six or even seven. So an

average of two extra seats in the 15 larger provinces means 30 extra seats,

which will [take us to] 45 seats.

So definitely we will get one-third,

with the disintegration of Funcinpec, with this new message to reduce poverty.

And we have more means also ... we raise more than half [our finances] within

Cambodia.

Remember that in 1993 ... the CPP got only 38 percent. In 1998

only 40 percent. That leaves non-CPP forces with 60 percent. The local elections

were something exceptional. With more young people, the percentage of CPP voters

should go down, not up. So one-third is the minimum.

The worst scenario

is between 40 and 47 seats. But with a more pronounced disintegration of

Funcinpec and with the big fish at the end of the campaign, and with the good

message we will deliver, it will go higher than one-third.

Maybe half.

That would be very good. The surprise can be only a good surprise. How good will

be determined by how transparent the election will be. But we will still have to

work very hard.

Are you concerned at problems with defectors joining the

ranks and getting offered good seats?

There are some people who say the

SRP will split because it cannot absorb the newcomers from Funcinpec, it cannot

swallow the big fish. But no, [the party members] understand. I told them it is

like a cake: If the three of us can produce this cake, we have one-third each

and have a small piece. But if you accept people who can bring more flour, more

eggs, more sugar, we will make a bigger cake and you will end up with each of us

getting a bigger portion.

Some of the Funcinpec do not come to take our

seats; they bring an electorate. We are very selective. When we give a position

we make sure he brings voters.

But there were concerns?

There were

some concerns. There are always some frictions, some tension, but I can tell you

that as of today this is minor. You don't see anybody shouting, protesting, or

threatening to leave the party. They are reasonable. They see it is better to be

part of a winning trend and win together.

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