H.E. Sar Kheng - inspired by others to enter the political arena.
IN the first in a series of interviews with leading opinion makers in Cambo-dia,
the Phnom Penh Post talks with senior CPP politician, His Excellency
Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister and co-Minister for the Ministry of Interior.
Excellency, tell us something about your background.
Officially I was born in 1950, although I was actually born in 1951 in Prey Veng
province. I was a high school student and lived with my parents until I was 18. In
1970 Cambodia had its political crisis and I abandoned my studies, because my district
was at war. Because of my patriotic ideals, I could not stay at home.
Following the appeal by the King, I joined the movement against the war between 1970
and 1975 to save the country. Between 1975 and 1978 I lived in Democratic Kampuchea
and worked as a normal printing house staff member of the DK. In 1978 [I heard about]
atrocities and killings committed by the Khmer Rouge. I escaped and went into the
forest to join the resistance against the Khmer Rouge.
In August 1978 I went to Vietnam, because I could no longer stay in Cambodia and
the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea was created. The Front entered
Phnom Penh city in January, 1979. After that I worked with the Cambodian People's
Party (CPP) from 1979 until 1990. I stopped working for the party and worked as the
Deputy Prime Minister and as a minister at the Ministry of the Interior between 1991
and 1993. Then I stood for election.
My parents are still alive. I have eight siblings - a total of nine children, one
of whom died.
What inspired you to get in to politics, and who most inspired your ambitions?
The first thing was the war in my district. The second was the appeal by the King,
at which time I was still a student. I was inspired by the King to flee into the
forest to join the resistance, and also influenced by the killings under the Khmer
Rouge. The people who encouraged me most were my colleagues, especially in 1978 my
colleagues living in the same unit. And then there was the leadership of the CPP,
Samdech Chea Sim, Samdech Heng Samrin, Samdech Hun Sen, and my colleagues.
What are your responsibilities as both Deputy Prime Minster and co-Minister for
the Ministry of Interior (MoI)?
I have been Minister and co-Minister of the MoI for two terms under the government.
After the end of the war, my major responsibility was to prepare the area of public
security and order. After the KR abandoned the Paris Peace Agreement, and during
the remainder of the war, I also played a part in building peace by helping curb
the return of the genocidal regime.
My major responsibility is to control administration of authority at the provincial,
district and commune level in pursuit of the decentralization policy. I am also involved
in drafting the law about control of the provinces, the districts and the commune
level regarding decentralization.
Can you explain the practical issues involved in 'wearing two hats' - how does
the consultation process work between yourself and the Prime Minister?
As the Vice-Prime Minister, the Prime Minister allows me to solve the daily problems.
I share some of the Prime Minister's workload by handling certain documents. I cannot
tell you how many times I call the Prime Minister - some days I call him 10 times,
other days none: it depends on how important the work is. My relationship with the
Prime Minister is conducted in three main ways: first by letter, second by telephone,
and third by face-to-face discussion.
There has been much talk about corruption in the government bureaucracy: for example,
the Prime Minister mentioned in an interview earlier this year that there were 4,000
'ghost police' on the MoI's payroll. How pervasive is corruption there?
Our police force currently has 54,700 members. [That compares favorably with] 1993
when there were 70,000. We have cut a large number of police officers. The plan is
to cut a total of 24,000 posts, so we are about 60 percent there... Recently we found
more than 3,000 [ghost] police, as the Prime Minister said earlier this year, but
these were hidden at a low level. At the moment there are no more [ghost] police,
so corruption involving ghost police is no longer an issue.
The most important task for your ministry in the upcoming commune elections
will be to maintain law and order and ensure the safety of candidates, voters and
the voting process: how serious is the prospect of violence and what steps will the
MoI take to minimize potential problems?
The National Election Committee (NEC), which implements the law of the commune elections
committee, recently announced that it has registered 83 percent of voters throughout
the country. We are very happy with this figure when compared to commune elections
held in other countries.
We are also happy with the environment of the registration process, because there
were no major problems involved with intimidation and assassinations. However, there
was a case in Siem Reap province, and I have ordered an investigation to be carried
Besides that there were cases in Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang, Kampot - which happened
a long time ago - and Pursat, but we have already arrested the killers. That case
happened outside the voter registration period. I feel very proud because there was
no violence during registration.
Tomorrow [August 28] I will have a meeting about the protection of candidates
during the commune election and the registration of candidates in the commune election.
I will work by all possible means to eliminate violence and intimidation.
Staying with the commune elections - do you think that most non-CPP candidates
are happy with security being provided by security forces who are generally pro-CPP?
Whether they are happy or not is their own business - I cannot talk about that. Previously
some political parties were undertaking activities that contradicted the law. For
example the opposition party of Mr Sam Rainsy, who hectored the people to register
or gave materials and money to the commune election comittee. So I am not sure whether
they are happy or not, but all of us will take part [in the election].
According to independent human rights groups three opposition candidates have
already been assassinated. It would be natural to assume that some opposition candidates
will be worried: do you think they are right to be fearful?
No, they need not be worried. The election protection committee and the government
will be worried thinking about how to ensure their security. Normally candidates
are worried, but that is their own business. That is why we have to pay attention
to their concerns. Most importantly, we have to arrest the killers if there is a
murder and send them to trial as per the law. In any killing -not only political
killings - we seek the arrest of people. This is the important thing.
Your ministry also oversees the conduct of provincial governors - can you tell
us how that works?
The governor of the province or city is the representative of the government: they
are under the authority of the MoI. Why do I say that they are the representative
of the government? Because the provincial [governor] does not only work for the MoI;
he is also responsible for the work in many fields such as health, education, social
affairs, public works and so on.
The governor has to be aware of, for example, the work of the Ministry of Education
that sends its orders to the provinces, and carry out the implementation of those
orders. This is how they represent the government. But the individual governor is
to be under the authority of the MoI only. This means that he has to report on all
his work to the MoI. Furthermore, he has to carry out the principles laid down by
the MoI. He also should ask permission if he wants to leave his province.
An issue that strikes many people is the outright racism commonly expressed against
the country's neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. It is likely that this will become
a political issue in the upcoming elections. What is your opinion on politicians
using race as a vote-grabbing mechanism?
First we have to implement the law. Second we have to follow the universal and international
principles regarding other nationalities who come to live in Cambodia. Bear in mind
that some Cambodians also live in neighbouring and other countries, but they were
born in Cambodia. They come [here] to vote.
For me I think that it is not a complicated issue and can be settled. I say this
because we rely on the spirit of the United Nations in 1993 giving them rights to
We cannot be narrow-minded, but we cannot register illegal immigrants and we do
not allow them to vote.
I think that politicians who use race are only serving their own party interests
and ideals. The government is now thinking of how best to enable eligible voters
- those who are Cambodian even though they were born in other countries. This has
happened in many countries, not only in Cambodia.
To what do you ascribe Cambodia's racial intolerance, and do you think it will
improve over time?
It is important to note that we have stopped the inflow of illegal immigrants, human
trafficking and the trafficking of women for sex. Discrimination is not good since
it impacts the international principles of the UN and it also causes conflict. I
hope that [the problem of] discrimination in Cambodia will improve; it must not exist.
In Cambodia there are many different races. Cambodians should consider them as Cambodian
people, as well as foreigners who come to settle here.
There were for many years rumors of a 'split' among CPP members: some aligned
themselves with Mr Hun Sen and others with Mr Chea Sim. What can you tell us about
This rumor has not been heard in the past few years. It comes from about 20 years
ago. We still work together. I am not of the view that the CPP might split into two
or three in the future.
The CPP plays an important role in society. It has a special role above other parties.
This difference is that the CPP has worked on the basis of a [national] conscience.
Though the CPP has drawn much criticism about a rumored split, we are still solid,
because the party has a clear national conscience. I predict that in the future the
CPP will still be the CPP and will be even stronger. This is my hope and would be
What is the current state of the CPP party - by that I mean, do you think it is
functioning to the best of its ability, and if not, what would you like to see improve?
Political parties commonly have aspects they can improve - the CPP has also made
some big changes. In 1979 after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge there was only the
CPP. Because of the CPP's national conscience the party made the decision to amend
its statute and policy in order to accept the proliferation of political parties.
I believe that if the CPP had not changed, then the current situation would be different.
In the future we will be ready to do whatever we need to do. For the sake of the
national interest we would make changes, including central level leaders and low
level leaders. We might do this, but exactly what changes [we would make] I cannot
You are regarded as a man sympathetic to the idea of decentralizing politics to
the regional, district and village level - can you explain your thoughts behind decentralization?
The main goal of decentralization is to encourage the participation of the people
in order to uphold their responsibility in the construction of the country, especially
the improvement of their living standards. This is the strengthening of the democratic
base in the community.
During the state of Cambodia we used a slogan which meant 'to collect together the
total forces' in order to oppose the return of the genocidal regime. Now we gather
all the force of the people in order to build the country. Through this we will give
them the power.
Previously, the district and the center had the right to make decisions; now the
communes have that right. For example, the communes have the right to raise their
own funds for their local budget so the public administration of the central level
will go to the people. This means the people will handle the commune administration
by themselves. To repeat, we will encourage people to gather together and build the
When people have enough to eat, their minds will be at peace. The decentralization
policy will not happen tomorrow or next year; it is a long and difficult road just
like in other countries.
Human resources are important for the decentralization policy, but financial resources
are also important: we cannot do anything without these two. Some people have said
that decentralization should not start until the government becomes stronger, but
if we wait for the right time to arrive, we might end up waiting a long time. We
cannot wait for the rain to come - we have to dig a well for water.
I want to improve the living standards of the people, but foreign aid will not meet
their needs. Today we have aid, but tomorrow we cannot be sure we will have it, so
we have to work by ourselves. This is not my policy, this is the policy of the country.
The KR tribunal law has now been passed. How much contentious debate was there
within the CPP over the past two years on this issue and what areas proved most awkward?
There was no contentious debate in the CPP about the Khmer Rouge trial law. Some
[outside] views were expressed that the CPP did not want to hold a trial. This issue
should not be raised - there is no reason for the question.
Why do they accuse the CPP of not wanting to hold a trial? We are the victims
when compared to other political parties. We are mortally against the Khmer Rouge.
Those who accuse us live with the Khmer Rouge. Where is their logic?
I have worked with foreign political personalities. I proposed two things: one was
peace, national reconciliation and unification; the other was justice for the people.
The CPP insists that finding justice must not affect solidarity and political stability.
[The idea of a trial] is no longer a contentious idea, since the National Assembly,
the Senate and the Constitutional Council have already passed the law. The only thing
that remains unsolved is to agree the mechanism with the United Nations in order
to set up the trial.
Since the formation of the current government in 1998, non-political violence
and crime have decreased. How much of your time has been spent on this issue and
to what do you attribute the government's success in this area?
As I said before, security strengthening is the most important thing. Many advisors
helped me. The work required strengthening the police force. Every six months the
MoI held a meeting with the local police and governors across the country. In addition
we held other meetings and consultations. We also cooperated with the Justice Ministry.
We proposed an amendment on the transitional UNTAC criminal code: the National Assembly
has not yet discussed the law, but the special committee of the National Assembly
has reviewed the amendment and agreed with it. We confiscated and destroyed more
than 10,000 weapons and I am now preparing a law on weapons control.
We have already demobilized most of the militia forces, but about 5,000 still remain.
Though I have worked on these, I am still not happy with the fact that there are
still robberies in Phnom Penh city.
I am still concerned about the drug problem. Though we have succeeded in destroying
marijuana farms in Cambodia, there is still smuggling of drugs such as opium, heroin,
and other drugs that affect young people. This is my concern, besides crime.
Your two jobs presumably do not give you much time to yourself. You apparently
enjoy playing petanque for relaxation. What else do you do in your free time?
I am still the honorary president of petanque in Cambodia, although nowadays I rarely
play - petanque is a game for old people. Now I play golf, because it makes me work
up a sweat.
You are now 50 years old - which is still relatively young for a senior politician
- and have headed the MoI for almost 10 years. Do you still enjoy the position, and
where do you see your career heading?
One should be satisfied with the work one is doing. For me, every aspect of my work
is valuable in order to do my duty. It is meaningless if one cannot fulfill the work
that one desires. I harbor no wishful thinking to be this or that.
Normally human beings want this and then they want that. If the people need me, I
will still serve them whatever I do, because I have already committed myself to serving