C ambodia's political crusader gave Ker Munthit and Jon Ogden the first interview since his controversial dismissal.
DISMISSED Finance Minister Sam Rainsy has condemned Fun-cinpec's loss of his portfolio to the CPP, pointing that it was the last major economic post controlled by the election winners.
Rainsy also castigated his own party for failing to deliver on its election promises, for being corrupt and for becoming subservient to the party it defeated at last year's polls - the CPP.
In a frank and passionate 90-minute interview with the Post at his modest villa in Phnom Penh, the populist Khmer expat also spoke of duplicitious behavior by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen which undermined his position.
He also expressed his hopes for the future and described his sacking as a "blessing in disguise."
Rainsy, 45, said he would continue to play his part in politics from the back benches and would pay more attention to the interests of his constituents in Siem Reap.
He also said he will quickly publish a book about his experiences in office, which will also map out a future path for the country.
The father-of-three described the ending of his 15-month and 15-day tenure in office as inevitable due to a culture clash between his liberal idealism and the "brute force" of the former communist CPP.
He emphasized that his removal from power was not important as long as sound policies were continued. "It is not about personalities but policies," he said.
Rainsy, who maintains a residence in France, says he has no intention of leaving Cambodia despite feeling he is under threat.
On a more light-hearted note he hopes to have more time to play Khmer songs from the 50s and 60s that he loves on his organ - though for now it is in need of repair.
The following is an edited account of the interview.
PPP: As you are no longer a minister, but just a member of the parliament, what are you planning to do in the future?
SR: MP means a lot. It implies a lot of work. I am happy now that I am in a position to do my work, to fulfill my duty as an MP more effectively, more properly. I can devote more time to the very challenging task of MP. First of all I would like to visit the people of my constituency in Siem Reap province more often, to work for them more effectively, to contribute to the well being of the people of Siem Reap who have voted for me. This is the first task.
The second task is my work as a lawmaker. As an MP, you have to contribute to make laws. And you know that the legal framework in Cambodia is far from being comprehensive. We lack many laws.
Just to mention a few of them. Land is the cause of many, many and sometimes endless dispute. And it is a cause of many abuses, especially concerning state assets that have been sold illegally.
We need the nationality law, a law on citizenship. Now we have immigration law, but we have to define what does Khmer citizenship mean? We have to define more precisely this criteria. This is in compliment with the immigration law. One can not go without the other.
We need a banking law. There are so many banks in Cambodia, but some of them have nothing to do with the banking business. They conduct illegal activities that are linked with money laundering.
We need a labor law to guarantee fundamental labor rights.
We lack administrative laws; how village, commune, district are organized; what is the role of the head of the phum, khum, srok.
We need commercial laws, in which you can include contract law, company law, bankruptcy law - all kinds of things which can set a stage for a free and fair competition to be implemented, so that we have a real market economy. Because freedom without rules and regulation means anarchy.
We have to move from a jungle economy to a market economy. And what makes the difference between a jungle economy and a market economy is precisely the legal framework. So we have to have a legal framework as comprehensive as possible and as quickly as possible. And, it is why the role of an MP, it's so important. The MPs have to contribute to propose, discuss, pass laws.
So I have plenty of things to do in the future. And at the same time I am planning, if I have extra time, to write a book. My book will have three objectives. One objective is to describe my experience for 15 months and 15 days at the head of the Ministry of Economics and Finance. Just for historical record, how and in what condition do we start to rebuild Cambodia after the election, how I tried to solve problems I faced.
The second objective is to make analyses of the Cambodian society from different perspectives, from inside the government, knowing, seeing and following how the administration works. These analyses will contribute to a better understanding of the Cambodian society.
The third objective is to give a vision. I think Cambodia and present Cambodian leaders lack long-term vision. It [the book] is to say 10 to 20 years ahead how would I see Cambodia, in what type of society we will be living in? To have a vision to see what should be the guideline, in what direction we are going, otherwise we will be lost in day-to-day problems. In French it is called grandes orientations - big guidelines. This is my vision on Cambodia in the year 2000. The book will be finished by the end of this year.
PPP: You mentioned about the state assets that have been sold illegally. And most of them were sold during the SOC regime. What can MPs do to bring those assets back, what power are you going to use?
SR: As an MP I can propose a law and ask the National Assembly to examine, discuss and adopt it, if there is a majority of the MPs [who] think this type of law is in conformity of the national interest. As a Funcinpec MP, I will abide by Funcinpec promises.
One of [the] Funcinpec promises during the election campaign was to take back the state assets which have been sold illegally by the previous administration to some bad investors. We have to cancel some bad deals. This is in accordance with Funcinpec promises. I am an MP elected on the basis of these promises. If I don't bring this issue now, I would be a liar. People will say we have elected you to solve a number of problems, and now you have forgotten your promises. I would be ashamed, if I don't do that. I would raise all the issues that the Funcinpec did raise during the election.
Look what are those promises. One is to give full power to the King or at least to abide by the wishes of the King. And I support Prince Norodom Sirivudh's view that Funcinpec has departed further and further from the King's wishes and views, contrary to our promise to abide by the King's will. Only the king can assure, can be the symbol of national unity, can guarantee political stability and political stability is a precondition for economic development, which in turn will strengthen political stability.
The second promise that Funcinpec made was to bring peace. A lot of people voted for Funcinpec because it promised peace to the people, to Cambodia. We said "vote for Funcinpec", because at that time the CPP said "we will make war with the Khmer Rouge, we will eliminate the Khmer Rouge militarily." But Funcinpec said at that time "no, war is not the solution, the solution is national unity and national reconciliation under the King's leadership; is to stop the bloodshed in Cambodia; is to achieve peace." Because Funcinpec is not a communist party, it is a royalist, liberal and democratic party. The two communist factions used and are used to fighting against each other - the Khmer Rouge of Pailin and Khmer Rouge of Phnom Penh. They used to be the Khmer Rouge together for many years. They didn't split in 1975, '76, or '77 it was only during 1978. So, only Funcinpec which is in the middle can bring all Khmers together under the King's leadership. Only Funcinpec can be the bridge between all conflicting parties, so we can achieve peace in Cambodia.
The third promise of Funcinpec. It said we will curb or try - of course we are realistic we can not eliminate corruption one hundred percent - to fight very hard against corruption. But as a matter of fact what have the people seen since the election?
Corruption is as widespread as before the election. I think in some circumstances, it is even worse. Before, you have to be on good terms with one party - it is the CPP - in order to get started in business. But now, you have to be on good terms with two different groups, so it is even more costly for everybody who wants to do business in Cambodia. And, there are many issues which haven't been solved, such as the logging issue, the destruction of our environment, our forests which has caused flooding, making peasants the victims of natural disasters. This is all linked to corruption. So, we have to fight seriously against corruption.
The fourth promise of Funcinpec is to put in the position of responsibility people with competence, dedicated people, contrary to CPP people who do not have much education or a high level of instruction. There are many educated people who are still waiting for a better environment to come, [before they] serve their country, because they do not trust the present leadership. The present leadership is not confident to show example, charisma, to show that they are leading the country in the right direction. It is why there are only a few people [who are making real use of their talents], while there many people inside Cambodia who have not been given the opportunity to serve their country. There are also people outside Cambodia who hesitate because of the situation, confusion and because a good example is not shown from the top leadership.
The fifth promise is to bring social justice, to end violence and intimidation. But very little has changed. In the countryside, there was a lot of intimidation against innocent people, against people who have supported Funcinpec. Even though Funcinpec won the election, but Funcinpec supporters now are subjected to humiliation, intimidation, even killing.
CPP controls nearly everything as before the election. In most of the districts and communes they control the police, the army, the administration. Funcinpec people are very disappointed because nothing has changed. The power remains in the same hands and all methods of repression, intimidation continue as before.
The sixth promise is that ministers, including the prime minister, who take positions should declare their assets. And when they leave their ministerial positions, they should declare again their assets in order to see what have they done during the period when they held their positions. But new ministers, new high ranking officials forgot those promises. They had nothing, nearly nothing before becoming ministers or prime minister. And now they are very, very rich and they forgot to make public their assets. No transparency. It means that some high-ranking officials have got very rich over the one-year-and-a-half which has just passed, thanks to that political position. They use that political position, power, influence to get rich and they do not dare to declare their assets to let people know how rich they are.
Just to mention the last Funcinpec promise that we will curb Vietnamese immigration, that we will control, not only on paper Vietnamese immigration.Until the adoption of the Immigration Law we did very little. Over the last 14-15 months, the Vietnamese are still moving into Cambodia. And more disturbing the Vietnamese have pushed the border markers to the detriment to Cambodia. Not only the Vietnamese, the Thais also have pushed the border markers and made Cambodia smaller and smaller. We do not dare to go to the international court and make a strong protest against this in order to defend our national integrity.
Every MP should share these concerns.
PPP: From what you have just said you seem to have lost faith in the leadership of your own party.
SR: I think in your own words you have expressed to a great extent my feeling. But I want to confirm that I am a Funcinpec member, I like my party because I like the ideals that my party embodies. Inside the party, I have to be loyal to our voters. I have to try to keep Funcinpec promises, otherwise it will be a betrayal of confidence, hope that millions of Funcinpec voters have laid on us. But, I still respect the president of the party, Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh. I have supported him for 11 years. I am still faithful and I always remain faithful to my party, to the president of the party, to the ideals of the party. But, I will do my best to keep the party on the right track.
It means to make sure that the party abides by its promises, remains independent vis-a-vis its ally. We are an ally in the coalition government with the CPP, but we should be independent from the CPP because we are the winners. We need the CPP less than the CPP needs us, because without this coalition the CPP would be wiped out. But for the sake of national unity, OK I support the idea of all parties working together. But we should at least work on equal footing and not be behind the CPP. You have the power on the surface, but the real power is in the hands of the CPP.
PPP: When did you learn that you were going to be removed from your chair?
SR: I have heard rumors over the last 12 months. But I didn't pay attention though I knew that one day I would have to leave. It was a permanent clash between two different cultures - between the culture of somebody who has been educated, raised in a humanist, liberal, free and democratic society. I have lived 27 years in France and I respect human values, individual rights, liberty and efficiency in work. I used to be a businessman, running my company. I have been a member of the board of directors of banks and financial institutions, so I know how to work efficiently. When I hold ministerial position, I have my conception of the common good, of the national interest. So, this is my culture. And this culture must clash with the culture of the former communists, of the people who use only physical force, military force, police force and who use money to destroy individuals - either to destroy them physically by force or to destroy their conscience with money. So, this is not my culture. One day we are meant to clash and the clash has happened. And I think it is a blessing in disguise it has happened now.
PPP: Don't you feel it is too late for Funcinpec to make a stand and alter the direction this government is taking, to re-assert their electorate mandate? Isn't your voice now one in the wilderness?
SR: No. What matters is not Sam Rainsy's worry. What matters, is the people's worries. You should go and talk with ordinary people. Don't talk with five-star generals, ministers, high-ranking officials, talk with the ordinary people. So, one day the will of the people will prevail. What matters is to know what is the will of the people. You are journalists and you should go and assess the situation, and know the will of the people and report on the will of the people. I am not just preaching. Sam Rainsy doesn't matter. Once Sam Rainsy falls, disappears, there will be tens, hundreds, thousands of Sam Rainsys who will rise up and speak out for the people in order that one day the will of the people will prevail. Don't be desperate because you face intimidation.
The people are fed up with communism, with oppression, intimidation, violence. Cambodia is a very tiny country, you can not run against the world's trend. The world's trend is toward democracy, the rule of the people, the respect for human rights. We don't have that in Cambodia, but Cambodia can not resist the world's trend. Cambodia was saved already once in 1993 by the election that gave hope to a lot of people. The world community saved Cambodia, tried to put it on the right track. We depend on international assistance. If the world community suspends aid for a few months, we will collapse.
Cambodia cannot rule regardless of human rights concerns, of world opinion about respect of liberty, freedom, democracy. Cambodia has experienced many miracles already - miracles which placed human beings, moral values, democracy above everything.
PPP: What was the political motivation behind the reshuffle and precisely your removal, particularly given the fact that as you have said you were alone representing one culture fighting another, the CPP?
SR: I think the CPP have identified who are the most dangerous persons within the Funcinpec party. And they want to eliminate those most dangerous persons one by one. And eventually, all Funcinpec leaders will be eliminated. Funcinpec leaders have to be aware of this. They [CPP] started with Sam Rainsy, Prince Sirivudh resigned. But they will continue. People they find dangerous for their continuing to exert power will be eliminated one by one. It is natural, but Funcinpec should be aware. If Funcinpec wants to remain in power as a party respecting the will of the people, Funcinpec must be united. That is why I will do whatever I can to strengthen unity within Funcinpec party. I want Prince Norodom Ranariddh to be a strong leader of Funcinpec and of Cambodia, but on a sound basis, not on the basis we are making dubious deals with Hun Sen, but on the basis of being a son of the King and president of the party that won the election.
Sam Rainsy doesn't want to do anything for himself. He wants to see his country on the right track; he wants to make sure that Cambodia has a bright future, that democracy has deep roots in Cambodia, that national interest prevails. Prince Ranariddh can lead this fight, and I will always be behind him in this fight.
PPP: You talked before that a number of high-ranking officials and ministers have been involved in corruption. Can you give us example of the kind of wealth they are acquiring
SR: There will be proof which will be given in due course. I'm not a policeman, making an investigation. But there will be proof which will be provided in due course.
PPP: How was your working and personal relationship with the Second Prime Minister Hun Sen during the time when you were a member of the cabinet?
SR: I had very little relationship with him. I would say that officially it was good, but behind the back it was not as good because he canceled my decisions, he made a lot of statements, he wrote letters that leaked to the press, etc. He created for me a lot of problems.
PPP: Your dismissal could be a blessing in disguise. Could you explain that?
SR: Things are much clearer. I feel much more relaxed, much freer. I can speak to you more openly and I can do my job as a lawmaker. If I am in the ministry all the time, I have to concentrate on the economy and finance. But now, I can have an overview on all kinds of problems that Cambodia is facing. I think people realize that there are alternatives. You know, I even don't fear for my life, so I wouldn't fear losing position. Losing position is nothing. I don't need the money, I have declared my assets before coming to Cambodia. I have enough to live very comfortably in France and I think I am not running after "honor". Honor doesn't mean being in a ministerial position, with a police car in front of and behind your car, with people saluting you. No, honor is doing things according to you conscience; doing things of which you and your children can be proud of. Honor is keeping your word in gaining the respect of people.
When I go out in the street I see an ordinary man driving a cyclo-pousse smiling and waving his hand recognizing me because I know that they have put hopes on me, respect me, this is a real honor. But those people who are very rich and powerful, the people spit on them. This is not honor.
PPP: The government has just introduced a new draft press law, which is tough and raises a lot of concerns among the media community in Cambodia. It looks like the government is intending to crack down on opposing ideas. What is your view?
SR: I personally support His Majesty the King's idea and suggestion on this matter. I don't think we need a press law. We must trust people and let people be responsible. No need to warn people, to put editor in jail, to kill editors. I am in favor of letting everybody write whatever he wants. If he writes nonsense, nobody will read it and he will disqualify himself and his newspaper will go bankrupt, you know. So, the ordinary people are more intelligent than what the leaders think of them. Don't be afraid of the truth. If they say the truth, if the truth hurts you, you have to change, so that the truth will not hurt you any more. If they tell lie, let them tell a lie. You can sue them for libel, for defamation. But this is not in the press law. It is in ordinary law in any country.
I have sued the Cambodia Times for libel and defamation, but I will never threaten the freedom of the press, freedom of opinion. I think the King is right in suggesting that there is no need to make a repressive press law, threatening to put journalists in prison for endangering national security. All these sound very much like the old communist style, endangering national security. It depends on your interpretation of national security. You can arrest and put in prison everybody for jeopardizing national security. It has this smell of the old communist law. I don't like it.
PPP: You mentioned that you don't fear for you life. But when you were a minister you had bodyguards because of tensions. Do you think that the threat to your life is going increase or decrease now you are no longer a minister?
SR: No, I don't believe that much in bodyguards. I used to have bodyguards. So, it is normal, in general, because of insecurity in Cambodia. But, I think my best bodyguards are journalists, diplomats, human right organizations. Those people, if they follow my activity, are watching what I'm doing and reading my statements. I think they are my best protectors, because as I have just said Cambodia depends on international aid. So, if an MP is killed; if an outspoken former minister is killed, I think it is very bad image for the government. The government has to look after me, to ensure my security. I don't fear that much. Still, I must take some precaution. I can not walk in the night or take the train to Sihanoukville.
Of course, sometimes I realize that it is dangerous that I take strong positions. But you have to overcome your fear, because if you are paralyzed by you fear, you can not do anything.
There is a saying that somebody who is not afraid to die, he will die only once, but the one who is afraid to die, he dies a little every day. So, I think I will die only once.
PPP: You have said that the CPP has retained all the power at the provincial level. And the person that replaced you is in the CPP, which means that Funcinpec has lost again. What's your view?
SR: This clearly shows how Funcinpec has lost power to CPP. Now the whole economy of Cambodia is in CPP hands. Look at the Ministry of Economics and Finance - Kiet Chhon, CPP and former KR. The National Bank of Cambodia - Thor Peng Leat, CPP. Normally, these two institutions must check and balance one another. If the National Bank is in the hands of one party, the Ministry of Economics and Finance should be in the hand of the other party. They should cooperate, but at the same time check and balance the relationship. Ministry of Planning - Chea Chanto, CPP. Ministry of Commerce - Cham Prasith, CPP. CDC - the prime minister [Ranariddh], who chairs, is too high - the real people who look after the portfolio is Kiet Chhon again. And last but not least, there is a Commission of Finance and Banking in the National Assembly. That commission should question the government about the economic and financial policy. The president of that commission is CPP.
All institutions which handle the economy in Cambodia are in CPP hands. It's very dangerous, very sad for Funcinpec and very disturbing for Cambodia. And Funcinpec who have won the election control nothing of the big institutions which control and manage the economy of Cambodia.
I don't want things to be personified. It is not personal matters. It is the matters of policy, of program, of the national interest. I have contributed to lay a solid foundation, to rebuild Cambodia's economy. All this foundation will remain. It doesn't matter whether Sam Rainsy himself continues to manage to build the house. As long as people who come to replace me continue my work in the same direction, in the same spirit, I will be very happy. When Kiet Chhon was appointed to replace me, I sent him congratulations and proposed to help him any time.