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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - SRP leader explains why he dumped gambling for politics

SRP leader explains why he dumped gambling for politics

SRP leader explains why he dumped gambling for politics

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Eng Chhai Eang resigned from the Sam Rainsy Party in 2005 over criticisms of his gambling habits. Chhai Eang says he has not gambled since. The SRP recently welcomed him back to his old position as party secretary general.

Eng Chhai Eang is back as Secretary General of the Sam Rainsy Party,

but with the position has come a new wave of criticism over his confessed gambling

addiction.

Trade union leaders, usually staunch SRP supporters, told the Post following the

party elections in mid September that Chhai Eang - who resigned in 2005 citing health

issues and an addiction to casinos - was a political liability just at a time when

the SRP needs good leaders to take the party into the 2008 national elections.

The mild-mannered 42-year-old remains unruffled by the attacks. "Criticism is

normal when you are a politician but what matters is my self resolve," he said.

"If I start gambling again - which I promise I won't - I will resign."

Married with two daughters and two sons, Chhai Eang entered politics in 1992 as a

member of FUNCINPEC's youth movement. After working as editor of the Voice of Khmer

Youth newspaper, he became the personal secretary of then Minister of Economics and

Finance, Sam Rainsy. When Rainsy broke away from FUNCINPEC in 1995 to form the Khmer

Nation Party (KNP) - the forerunner to his SRP - Chhai Eang became a member of the

party's steering committee. He was elevated to Chief of Cabinet for the SRP in 1997.

He was elected to the position of Secretary General in 1999. After his fall from

grace he remained active in politics as a member of parliament for Battambang province

and as deputy of the National Authority for Resolving Land Disputes. On September

28, Chhai Eang spoke to the Post's Cat Barton and Vong Sokheng about casinos, clean

living, and the SRP's political platform for the 2008 elections.

What made you realize that you should retire as Secretary General in 2005?

At that point I went to casinos a lot. My political opponents knew that I went to

casinos and gambled, and they attacked me and my party. I didn't want the party to

have a bad image, so I resigned. You know many high ranking officials in the CPP

also gamble but they are not criticized for it, but members of the opposition party

get criticized. I had a responsibility to protect my party. Even though the money

I spent gambling came from my personal pocket, I always knew that gambling was not

a good habit. I had to solve the problem for myself; I didn't want the party to help

me.

How did you quit?

I quit gambling in 2005 when I resigned. My gambling was never compulsive; I could

stop myself quite easily. I was never going to the casinos every day, but if anyone

saw me go to a casino, even once, then they exaggerated and said I was there every

day. I never spent big money - the most I ever lost was $2,000 at one time. I was

also a heavy smoker. I used to smoke all the time, but I stopped both at once. We

are old enough to look after ourselves. No one told me to go to the casinos, no one

told me to stop going. I decided for myself.

Was the scale of your problem blown out of proportion?

It is up to the public to decide what the scale of the problem was. I went to the

casinos just for fun, for entertainment. But as I am a [political] target, people

criticized me. So now I have stopped totally. This problem is only my responsibility.

Many people realized that I stopped going to casinos but they don't talk about that.

What type of gambling was your favorite?

I used slot machines and also played cards. How much I spent depended on the depth

of my pockets at the time. You can play big, or you can play small. It is up to you.

For example, sometimes I would spend $200 or at other times, if I had money, it would

be $1,000. So if I was going regularly it could get expensive. To be honest, I lost

a lot, but I never really won anything.

Do you prefer gambling or politics?

I think of myself as a politician so I have to work for the people. Gambling is a

small thing - but it is turned into a big problem. I realized that if I carried on

gambling I would have to stop being a politician, and that is far more important

to me - I want to be able to help my society. So, as I said in my statement, I will

not make my party lose support. Politics was what I chose, not gambling.

How would you respond to those who criticize your re-election?

If I stay clean, it will not be a problem. If I did become addicted again, they would

have a point. Regarding my return to the position of Secretary General, people in

the party really encouraged me to stand and they voted for me. A day before the congress

I never thought I would come back and work as the Secretary General of the party.

I never lobbied for my position. The people who voted for me are not stupid; they

have observed me. The elections were free and fair. There was a secret vote. But

I am not surprised by criticism. There is a Khmer proverb - if a tree grows higher

than others then it will hit the wind.

Do you think SRP members and the general public respect the fact you have dealt

with a gambling addiction?

I feel all the people who voted for me see that I am a person with a strong sense

of responsibility. Some people commit wrong deeds but don't own up to it, they don't

accept responsibility for their own actions. Many Cambodian politicians are not responsible

for themselves. Now I am and people see that. I think not only me should be "clean."

Everyone in my party must be clean and not just from gambling. There are three kinds

of vice - girls, gambling and alcohol. For me, I feel that everyone has to be responsible

for their actions. If they commit any one of these sins, if they are in my party,

or in the government, then they should resign in order to show they are responsible

for themselves and to their society and political party. For me, from now on, if

I am involved with any of these three sins then I will resign from my position. I

want everyone in my party to adhere to this. It is only by doing this that we can

move society forward in a good way.

Could SRP get votes from CPP by being the "clean" party?

I don't actually think at the moment that many voters think about this. They are

more concerned about their personal conditions. Poverty is chronic in Cambodia, but

if many people can obtain better living conditions then their voting priorities will

change focus and they might start thinking about clean politicians. The CPP created

casinos, if they create more then it will create more problems. So why do people

still vote for the CPP? The CPP politicians get involved in affairs. These results

in acid attacks, or worse, killings. But much of Cambodian society doesn't seem to

think such issues are important at the moment, they think only about their living

conditions.

So how will the SRP win votes?

We have a three-pronged strategy to eliminate poverty. First, we will create good

jobs. Now, many people don't have jobs so we will try to eliminate corruption and

build proper development projects, attract more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI),

if more good FDI comes then it will create more good jobs for people. Secondly, we

aim to decrease the price of staples, for example, fertilizer, fuel, electricity.

Thirdly, we have a strategy to try and manage hospitals and provide free public services

without charge. Now, people face many difficulties when they go to the hospital,

they have to sell their cows, they have to sell their land, borrow from their neighbors.

If the SRP can bring good subsidized public health care, like in Thailand, to Cambodia

this will help so much. So more jobs, better health care, and a reduction in the

price of basic goods: This is the Sam Rainsy strategy to eliminate poverty, and this

is the platform we will be running on for the next election.

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