To him, there is "no future in this country without the CPP", and "no
future for the CPP" unless it opens up to reforms. Ok Serei Sopheak -
widely considered the strategist behind Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng's public
image as the moderate, democratic face of the CPP - spoke to Kyra Dupont.
A former resistance fighter who has become perhaps the first real spin doctor
of the CPP, Ok Serei Sopheak initially envisaged a career in medicine. A medical
graduate of Phnom Penh and Paris universities, Sopheak entered the political world
by helping to found the Cambodian republican movement Moulkhmer while living in France
in 1977. He held a series of positions in the anti-Vietnamese resistance of the 1980s,
including as an assistant to Son Sann and later as a Khmer People's National Liberal
Armed Forces (KPNLAF) commander in charge of military planning and analysis. Co-founding
the Liberal Democratic Party in 1990, he failed in his bid to win a parliamentary
seat for Prey Veng in 1993. He rallied to the CPP and became Chief of Cabinet to
Sar Kheng, the Deputy Prime Minister and co-Minister of Interior. Aged 45, he is
married to a Frenchwoman and holds French citizenship.
Phnom Penh Post: As the date for next year's elections gets closer, it appears
that the CPP is attempting to change its image into a friendlier one. As the man
responsible for the change in HE Sar Kheng's much softer speech, can you confirm
this apparent change of [style]?
Ok Serei Sopheak: We should go back to the elections in 1993, just after
the elections supervised by UNTAC. It was very obvious for [Sar Kheng] and I, who
used to fight against each other in the resistance time, that [the past] was really
the past. Cambodia committed itself along with its own people and the international
community to go ahead with an open society, a liberal democratic and multi-party
process, and a free market. And that's why, since Cambodia was always a closed society,
we needed to prepare ourselves, adapt ourselves to the new situation and open ourselves
to the world.
What are the characteristics of the CPP's new strategy? Is it about speaking more
openly, a change in the image of political figures?
The strategy could be summarized in a few words: talk more, talk the truth, and
talk at the right time with the right people.
If we want a policy to be implemented, we should, before launching that policy, go
ahead and prepare the public opinion [for] what it is all about. We could not just
impose a policy [made] between four walls on the people whose lives it will change.
So the success of this policy can only be reached if the people adhere to it. In
the past they just decided something and implemented it. The new way is to prepare,
to talk, to explain by organizing small meetings in society: of students, women's
groups and the international community, the mass media and diplomatic corps. This
is the new approach... based on dialogue, on opening oneself and actually on telling
As the election date gets closer, the CPP is opening an Internet website. Do you
think this is the beginning of a strategy to show a more open and maybe liberal image
of the CPP?
I think that this Internet site is based on what the CPP leaders feel is a negative
image [resulting] from the 5 and 6 July events. A lot of people in the CPP didn't
expect the overall reaction of the international community to be so bad. But now
because we feel hurt there are big social and economic problems.
And the fact that ASEAN could not accept Cambodia as a member is a direct consequence
of July, so the overall image is negative...everybody realizes that. To rebuild the
country's economy, society, etcetera, we need to integrate ourselves into the global
forum. This could take place if the image perceived by our friends in the region
is positive. That is why, for the time being, everybody agrees that the image is
so negative that we have to change it if we want to receive assistance programs,
[Secretary of State for Information] Khieu Kanharith said several months ago that
one of the weaknesses of the CPP was that it is not open enough to the media, especially
the foreign media. He said that this is because of the language barrier, but also
because the CPP leaders are too secretive. Do you think this is beginning to change?
I think that part of what His Excellency Khieu Kanharith said is true, but not
all. For example, we are going to prepare the crucial big event of the election in
May 1998 in this country and, for the first time, it will be prepared by Cambodians
themselves. It is a very lengthy democratic process and to know how to speak English
is not enough. You need to have an overall political background and political culture
to address Asian minds, Asian people, to address France, to address Japan. You have
to understand other societies as well. And not only English.
Communication has to come from their heart. The understanding of what happens in
other societies, this is a crucial point. It is not only language but the overall
political culture that we have to acknowledge, know from the others. I think this
is the main point.
Funcinpec from the beginning had an asset as they came from abroad, and usually
spoke English or French, but obviously it was not enough, was it?
Funcinpec had a lot of communication advantages. They knew how to speak, how to
address people. They understood the culture of the foreigners. That is why during
the first years of the government Funcinpec was very credible. A lot of people believed
them, found them natural friends to talk to. But step by step, [they] found that
what Funcinpec said was not true. They checked, double checked and found a lie. That's
why those communication advantages came back to haunt them, when the lies were discovered.
That's why I give the CPP this advice now: Go out, dialogue. It's a good change.
The way we approach others is good. But always based on truth and sincerity, this
is a crucial element to make friends.
You have said that the future of this country cannot be seen without the CPP,
and that the future of the CPP cannot work without opening up. Can you explain why?
I think that it is obvious to everybody, especially after four years of opening
up the way the government is run, the opening of society, the government opening
to the region and to the world.
In Cambodia, in the villages, communes, districts, provinces, the power of the CPP
on the ground is so huge that everything has to be done in this country with the
CPP... I believe that the CPP, we have to agree, comes from a very old political
culture. It means a socialist society [which] we are building out in the framework
of an open society. So I believe that to succeed [with] this new program to rebuild
the society, we need to change the way this country, this party, used to be run,
the leadership of CPP.
That is why I think that there are great positive elements in the CPP that want to
adhere to the democratic process, to the long term democratic process. And that's
why the real question is how to control the enormous power that controls the country.
[The choices are to] go back to the way the country used to be run, or to use this
power to adopt a new style of leadership, a new style of running the government,
a new style of running institutions like the National Assembly.
The leadership has to be prepared to accept new reforms without which there will
be no success at all. There are two types of electorate. The activist voting electorate,
[who vote] because it is their line or because they don't have the choice; they are
following an order. And [then there is] the electorate which doesn't want to support
any party... This one doesn't believe in anything anymore and stays at home. This
one does not condemn the CPP, on the contrary it condemns the other parties. It is
this electorate that needs to be moved. But it is not easy and now the time remaining
is very, very limited.
Can you explain the reaction of the two Prime Ministers in Phnom Penh to the UN
human rights report. Isn't it a strong reaction that could draw the wrath of the
If there is wrath, they have not yet made it known... I think there was something
positive about this meeting of the inter-ministerial committee in which I participated
as the representative of the Interior Ministry. We decided to move in stages.
First of all we decided that this report is a damning report. This report tried to
paint a very dark picture of the situation and totally ignores certain actions, taken
by the Ministry of Interior, for instance, concerning the impunity of military officials.
We sacked [and] punished police officers in 1996. In July 1996, we dismantled gangs.
I personally launched a campaign to fight against police officers who were behind
these [gangs] and we have punished these elements, but that was not even mentioned
in the [UN] report.
And Article 51 [of the Law on Civil Servants, which gives government departments
the right to veto criminal prosecutions of their staff]... My minister told Thomas
Hammarberg [the UN human rights representative] that he would help remove this article
from the text of law. But until that happens, we have to live with this article.
We [the Ministry of Interior] have never used this article. We have never protected
one of our civil servants...
Secondly, we decided during the inter-ministerial meeting that the government begin
a serious investigation to find and examine, point by point, every single accusation
mentioned in the report. Interior Ministry Secretary of State Im Chhun Lim was sent
to Battambang and Koh Kong to verify all the accusations mentioned in the report.
If we find the culprits we will have to punish them... We will make serious investigations
and the ones who have perpetrated these crimes will be judged according to the law.
Even very high ranking officials?
Even high ranking officials. We apply the law to everybody. The law is supposed
to have a general scope. The law has no selective effect. If we start making exceptions,
it sets a bad tone. We would bring about our own destruction. If certain people think
they are above the law, it is our own loss. All of us should be very careful.
How do you see 1998 elections?
One should not see these elections as one electoral process, once and for all.
One should see the May 1998 elections as the first of an indefinite series; a process
for Cam-bodia's survival. Cambodia's survival cannot happen outside of a democratic
framework. In this context, donor countries have to engage in this process and avoid
linking this process with the July events. It is difficult not to link the two, but
it is necessary for the sake of this country's future.
The electoral process of May 1998 is the best means of correcting the ...[events]
of July 1997. Now it is essential to aim for the most free and fair process possible.
The goal of 100 percent free and fair is not possible. If we aim for 90 percent and
obtain 50 percent, it is not a catastrophe as long as the process is working. The
process is really the most important thing for the future.
The CPP is said to be unpopular and it seems unlikely that the majority of the
people in Cambodia will vote for the CPP. There are also signs - such as the fighting
in July - that the CPP might not agree to hand over the reins of its power if defeated
at the polls. How is the CPP going to change the minds of [voters]?
I fully agree with your analysis but I don't think it will be a reason to endanger
the democratic process which has already begun .... As part of a changing process
accepted by everybody, the CPP is in power and remains in power...
As for the elections I am skeptical that the elections as a [one-time] electoral
effort. I believe elections are like the work of ants, a job that entails occupying
the ground, which is necessary for a multi-faceted... political party if it wants
to obtain an honorable result.
Then comes the result of the elections; who the people voted for. But the most important
side is the structure, the [party network]. And for that reason, even if the CPP
is not popular, it is the only political party with a sizable structure in the field.
Now, following the events of July 1997, there are no challengers standing before
the CPP. It is difficult to make a clear and logical choice. There is a risk that
the vote will be spread among small parties, so I see the future political landscape
as a coalition government with the CPP as the central pivot... Always the CPP. And
it is here precisely that the CPP should give an opportunity to other political parties,
which know how to exploit the political [vote] against the CPP, to gather the votes
of people disappointed by Funcinpec or other parties. I believe it is most interesting
to convince this electoral group outside of the CPP. There is an electoral faction
which is loyal to the CPP but there is a big electoral grouping which does not believe
in anything and who risk staying at home and boycotting the elections by abstaining.
And especially in a country where 52 percent of the population are women, this constitutes
an electorate that we must to work on.
But provincial people sometimes say the nationwide political structures you are
talking about are only superficial. There are political party signs, but no offices
behind them. They say political work in the field is done by CPP [government] officials
who wield power and fear?
It is not true or very true. [But] Funcinpec representatives were not any different.
And it is because of that that I speak about mentality. Authority in Cambodia does
not yet work for the people. It is still an authority which manages the everyday
administration. Any authority is like that, it is not specific to the CPP. And that's
why, because of its political fieldwork, the CPP will always manage to get an honorable
[election] result, because there is a lack of challengers around the CPP. The people's
discontent about authority is not specific to the CPP. [It is] common to any political
party. The notion of power in itself has to be questioned in Cambodia. The mentality
of the people in power has to change.
There are a lot of complaints that the justice system is not independent and that
judges fear the Ministry of Interior. What do you think? Is there need for reform?
You must have heard many times, one or the other [political party] talking about
separation of power: the executive, the justice and the legislature. This concept
of separation of power is not Cambodian, it is Western.
In Cambodia, when someone is in power, he holds [absolute] power, and when he says
'separation of power' it is just words. It is not part of the national culture. Why
do we expect him to change so fast, in four years? It is not possible. You could
not ask Cambodians for something they can not possibly give you. That is why I think
that the independence of the judiciary system remains a goal, but a long term goal.
... The justice system [has] had problems that are obvious to everybody... That is
why [it] is really good that the UN report focuses on this. But it is not good to
accuse Cambodia of failing to have an independent judicial system. [Even] in countries
like the United States or France it is very hard to prevent the executive power from
trying to influence the legal system.
I think that we have a problem between the executive and the judiciary system, but
if we compare to the past, five years, ten years ago, we can see a lot of progress
because the whole society is open. There are no secret trials, secret arrangements
behind the doors [where judges] come and pronounce. There are still things like that,
but people have access to lawyers, to the press, to denounce bad judges and so on.
So a lot of things are conducted in a more and more open way.
The justice system has to adapt itself to the new situation too. I praise a lot of
programs from the international community to train justice officials to do their
jobs right. But the key element of getting a good judiciary system is to pay a good
salary... If you want them to be independent without giving them the means to survive,
there will be no effective judicial system at all. This is the truth. That is why
communication between the Ministry of Interior and the Justice Ministry is good...
My minister has repeated again and again to Mr Thomas Hammarberg that the Ministry
of Interior never said "no" to any request from the Justice Ministry to
punish high ranking officials in the police. This is the best way of working with
the Justice Ministry, by allowing [it] to pursue the new process of law.
But if you wait too long, don't you risk permitting impunity to become the rule,
which would be a cancer for Cambodian society? Not only would certain people be dead
by the time the justice system is effectively functioning, but society will evolve
with this cancer, this dysfunction?
I fully agree with this too, but it is not true to say that... people who committed
crimes or other wrongs [in the past] have gone unpunished. In 1996 and the first
half of 1997, the Ministry of Interior alone punished high ranking officials, police
officers, and sanctioned quite a lot of them... But I was very sorry when I read
the report of Mr Hammarberg which didn't mention this, [even though] we communicated
those things to them. As you mentioned, if we wait too long the cancer will develop
in a way that we can no longer cure. But this is a society that lived through two
decades of war. A generation that is 35 years old or less... has known nothing but
war. How do you expect the justice system in just four years to change completely?
We have to be realistic and pragmatic. The way that people like me have a chance
to have an input into the system, and participate in the system, is a good sign that
Cambodian society is ready to accept input from the outside. As long as it continues
like this we can still have a lot of hope for this country.
So the 45 confirmed extra-judicial killings of July constitute the price to
pay for the [eventual] improvement of the situation?
I would not put that in those terms because whatever criminal activities [took
place] it is the duty and the political will of the government to investigate and
punish those criminals. Otherwise we cannot talk about a state of law. A country
without a state of law would be a jungle that would end up destroying everybody.
What I was saying was that justice has to be implemented but with regard to the environment.
It is like the events of July. There was a lot of wrongdoing. The looting, for example.
Hundreds of thousands of people suffered from that. Others lost their lives. Families
demanded justice and we have to give it to them. My ministry suspended three high
ranking officials directly involved in the Ho Sok [murder] case in the Ministry of
Interior itself. [The officials have since been reinstated; no one has been brought
to justice for the execution.]
But don't just think about this - we should just go back to the root cause of the
problem. People in Funcinpec should have thought very hard before engaging in an
armed conflict. This is a lesson for all of us. No armed conflict could be justified
in the eyes of the public opinion. That's why the events of July should be the last...
because it caused a lot of damage and pain. People on the streets who were looted
by soldiers, by everybody, who will pay them back now? They also ask for justice.
So I think that no price should be paid, but it did happen. What we can do is learn
the lesson from those events and not repeat them. This is the best we can do and
it requires a lot of commitment and strong will. I'm not saying that we cannot do
it, if we learn the right lesson. That is my advice to my minister anyway.