Sam Rainsy: 'As a fake democracy, Cambodia is a country with only a democratic facade made up of apparently democratic institutions, which are functioning in fact in the most autocratic way. A fake or perverted democracy is more difficult to deal with (because it's more insidious) than a dictatorship that is universally recognized as such.'
Cambodia is going the "Burmese way," says opposition leader
Sam Rainsy. But he doesn't see himself as the country's answer to jailed pro-democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In this interview via email from France, Rainsy discusses
the impact of his absence and the future of his embattled party.
Post: What effect do you think your absence has had on the party?
Sam Rainsy: Limited effect since, as everybody can see, the party is holding well
and functioning as usual. This proves that the SRP had become, since long before
the recent events, a real and effective organization. Nothing to do with a "one-man
show," as some people used to depict it. Otherwise, how could a man alone have
collected more than 1.1 million votes (representing 22 percent of the electorate
throughout the country) at the last election in 2003?
P: What has to change to allow you to return to Cambodia?
SR: When Cheam Channy, Mam Sonando and Rong Chhun are released from prison and parliamentary
immunity is restored for Chea Poch, Cheam Channy and me.
P: What options are there if you are unable to return?
SR: I am convinced that, with democrats standing firm, the political situation in
Cambodia will evolve rapidly in the next few weeks or months. In the meantime, I
am using all modern communication techniques to keep in touch with my colleagues
and my fellow compatriots in the country. I will return much sooner than some people
P: If you did return and were arrested, could there be a benefit
for the party, in solidifying support locally or raising the level of attention for
the SRP internationally?
SR: Such a benefit would be small compared to the psychological and political setback
for the party (including the demoralizing effect for grassroots supporters) if I
were to lose the possibility to speak and to act with total freedom worldwide. With
the recent arrests of Cheam Channy, Mam Sonando and Rong Chhun, everybody already
knows how serious the situation in Cambodia is. If its president were to be silenced
and held hostage, it would be difficult for the SRP to remain the conscience of the
nation and the voice for the majority of the Cambodian people who have already been
P: Do you see yourself as an Aung San Suu Kyi-type character?
SR: Except for the Dalai Lama, no living Asian political leaders can be compared
to Aung San Suu Kyi, who enjoys a unique international stature and prestige on our
continent. The way Aung San Suu Kyi has accepted to be detained over the last 15
years may be the appropriate strategy for the democratic opposition in Burma given
her international stature. But for Cambodia, even though the current Phnom Penh government
is increasingly following the "Burmese way," there are other possible and
viable options for the democratic opposition to continue its fight in our country.
P: Various senior SRP members have seemed to share the leadership
and/or spokesperson role of the party while you have been away, including Mu Sochua,
Son Chhay, Eng Chhay Eang, Ung Bun-Ang and Tioulong Saumura. Who do you see as the
emerging leaders of the party?
SR: All of them, and you've failed to mention many others.
P: Kem Sokha is another opposition voice that would appear to fit
closely with the SRP's political position. Will there be a role for him in the future?
SR: Of course, he will play a leading role. All democrats will be united in order
for democracy to prevail.
P: Kong Korm's recent appearance alongside Prime Minister Hun Sen
raised a few eyebrows. What message was he trying to send with this appearance?
SR: I have been in touch on a regular basis with all my colleagues including vice-president
Kong Korm. Our adversaries want to create suspicion and distrust within the SRP.
I will not fall into their trap. We must not pay too much attention to "rumors"
which are fabricated to serve a specific purpose.
P: There has been a lot of talk about the internal reform to the
party. What reforms have taken place since February this year?
SR: Reforms are going on slowly but steadily to strengthen internal democracy within
the party and therefore to eventually strengthen the party itself. They are based
on two principles: 1) party leaders at all levels (local, provincial, national) must
be elected by party members at the corresponding levels, bottom up. 2) all party
leaders can be dismissed (impeached) any time by party members who have voted them
in, according to appropriate procedures.
P: Will the party be the Sam Rainsy Party in 2008 or can we expect
a name change?
SR: There will be a name change when we have the assurance that there will be no
administrative harassment or political trick (in the form of a split of the main
opposition party engineered by the ruling party such as the one happening with the
Khmer Nation Party just before the 1998 elections) to prevent us from taking part
in the 2008 elections. This would entail a more independent judiciary.
P: How much support is the SRP receiving from the National Democratic
Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI)?
SR: Satisfactory support.
P: Have you felt that the international community (through embassies
in Phnom Penh) has supported the role of opposition this year, or have you felt let
SR: The main job for local diplomats is to maintain good relations with governments
of countries where they are posted. Understandably, they have to think of their careers
and you cannot expect them to be too critical and to openly take risks by "rocking
the boat" or "making waves." Instead, they tend to turn a blind eye
to many irregularities and abuses. But there are informal talks and alternative channels
to convey appropriate messages to governments of democratic and friendly countries.
The latter do pay attention to the recent authoritarian drift in Cambodia.
P: Considering the way the SRP has been attacked this year, can
Cambodia still claim to be a democracy?
SR: Cambodia presents just a facade of democracy. This year, even the facade has
started to crumble.
P: The word "dictator" has been used more and more to
describe Hun Sen (even by the Prime Minister himself in a joke during his October
17 speech in Kampong Cham). Do you believe Hun Sen is a dictator and if so, could
you explain why?
SR: As a fake democracy, Cambodia is a country with only a democratic facade made
up of apparently democratic institutions, which are functioning in fact in the most
autocratic way. A fake or perverted democracy is more difficult to deal with (because
it's more insidious) than a dictatorship that is universally recognized as such.
P: How are you feeling about the SRP's chances in the 2008 election?
SR: Our main priority is to obtain a more balanced and more equitable composition
of the national election committee (NEC), which is currently made up exclusively
of representatives from the CPP and its docile ally Funcinpec. We are calling on
the international donor community to stop endorsing dubious elections in Cambodia
by financing them and/or by sending "experts" and "observers."
In which democratic countries elections are organized exclusively by the ruling parties
with total exclusion of the opposition from the electoral process? Who can decently
label such elections as "free and fair" or simply "acceptable"?