Sam Rainsy demonstrating for UN trials of the Khmer Rouge last week
AM RAINSY has been criticized for paying more attention to extended travelling abroad
than everyday politics in his home country.
And now, rumors are circulating in Phnom Penh that he's grown tired of Cambodian
politics and is planning to escape to an intellectual refuge in France.
But while opposition leader Sam Rainsy acknowledges that he does spend a lot of time
outside Cambodia, he blasts any speculation that he is about to abandon ship.
"People who say that I've lost steam and interest just don't know my character",
said Rainsy in an interview with the Post.
Yet there are signs that the leader of his self-named party is stepping down frontline
activity and making preparations for a future succession. Last week the Sam Rainsy
Party appointed a new secretary-general, who will be devoted full-time to the party's
Rainsy is also planning to change the party name back to the Khmer Nation Party as
it was before the 1998 election. During the interview he frequently uses the party's
previous appellation, while stressing that the name change won't happen until he
has a firm legal guarantee that the name belongs solely to his party.
Together with a new decentralized party structure that includes provincial councils
in all 22 provinces, these moves may be interpreted as showing a weariness in Rainsy's
leadership and a wish to withdraw further from the Cambodian spotlight.
Rainsy himself offers a different explanation:
"No party or organization should ever be reliant on one single person - one
single face. A party should not promote people but values and principles".
"I know that so far, I as a person have been the main focus point, and my name
and face has to a large extent been associated with the values and philosophy that
the party stands for.
"But it is a weakness. I could get killed tomorrow, and yet the party would
have to carry on regardless.
"If the party disintegrates because I'm no longer there, it means it has been
Though he doesn't mention any names, Rainsy doesn't hide the fact that he has given
a certain amount of thought to who could become his successor. Both on a long and
"The tragedy with top leaders in this country is that they think they are immortal.
They are not, and neither am I, so I have a duty to promote a new generation of leaders
and help the most capable emerge".
"In the steering committee of the party there may be a certain number of talented
people. Out of them there may be three who will rise above the others. And out of
them, one may one day become my successor".
To make room for future leaders to evolve and emerge, Rainsy is increasingly taking
on a less visible role, stepping more in the background and encouraging party workers
in independent initiatives.
"So far I've been out there in the streets running with the activists. But sometimes
one must sit back and think. I see my function as party president more as the thinker,
the one who lays out the overall strategy and the philosophy that the party is based
"That is why it is so important that our new secretary-general does not have
other any obligations as Senator or member of the National Assembly. I will relay
my ideas and thoughts to him and he will make sure they are implemented".
According to this division of roles and responsibilities, Rainsy is currently devoting
a lot of time and energy on writing a book about the political principles and philosophy
that the party is founded on. He predicts it will be published early next year.
Some parts of his writing will be done in Cambodia, others abroad, since Rainsy is
still planning on travelling frequently.
This is exactly what has caused criticism: his extended trips, particularly to France
and the US, versus extended stays in Cambodia. It has also fed the notion that Rainsy
was growing disillusioned and estranging himself from everyday Cambodian political
"But you must realize that without my trips abroad, the party could not function.
I bring back money that helps us overcome our financial constraints".
"Also I have to find political support for the struggle to build democracy in
Cambodia. We are very dependent on international assistance, but Cambodia is such
a small country, that for instance American Congressmen would never grant us a thought
unless we actually show up and knock on their door".
Whereas overseas trips keep his name and face away from the public, Rainsy is not
concerned that it also keeps him out of influence.
"When I'm most active is not necessarily when I'm most visible. And it makes
no difference if an issue is raised by me or by a Sam Rainsy Party member of the
"In this age of communication, geographical distance is often irrelevant. Even
when I'm out of the country, I'm still in contact with the party office in Phnom
When questioned about the large number of Cambodians who don't have access to phone,
fax, Internet or other forms of communication, Rainsy refers to the new decentralized
structure being put in place.
"We need more frontline activists. We need to be out there where Cambodians
live and work. If a problem or a human rights violation occurs in a village, it is
no good that people have to travel all the way to Phnom Penh to get help".
"At the same time, this structure will help us identify and reward the many
capable party officials, who work very hard out in the provinces. Up until now, there
has been a lack of recognition. That we can now make up for".
All in all, Rainsy sees the decentralization and his own more withdrawn position
as thinker and overall strategist as a sign that his party has matured considerably.
"I'm proud to have built an organization that can function without me,"