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Sar Kheng: coalition, elections and winning trust

Sar Kheng: coalition, elections and winning trust

Some observers suggest co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has undergone a remarkable

transformation from die-hard communist to champion of democracy. Others maintain

a leopard never changes its spots. In the translated interview below, he spoke to
Huw Watkin about the Kingdom's problems and prospects.

Post: The Cambodian People's Party is to hold its congress Jan 23-27. What do

you believe are the biggest issues facing the party?

"Frankly, this is a difficult question to answer. But as one of the leaders

of the CPP I [can say] that there are two big challenges in front of us... The first

is how to stay alert and active in the process of rebuilding political stability.

This will be very difficult but the CPP would like to build stability. The second

big challenge is to gather all the different forces within the party for the purpose

of serving the electoral process.

In terms of stability and peace, the CPP has encountered some successes and some

failures. We still have peace, so that is a success, but failures because there is

a public perception that the [coalition] parties are at risk of armed confrontation

[with each other]. I think this general perception is right, but not totally. It

is true there is a building up of forces, but I believe that in Battambang for example,

the CPP is not building up its forces. This was the unilateral decision of [Deputy

Governor] Serei Kosal to mobilize his troops [under the guise] of some sort of threat...

there was no threat.

Anyway we adopted a general principle that we would deal with these problems through

negotiation... and try to resolve differences in a peaceful way.

Post: So the political tensions in the northwest are now resolved?

I had many meetings with political and military leaders in Battambang and Siem

Reap and I told them that the current situation is completely different from the

political situation in 1970, 1975 and 1979. I told them that at those times the power

in place was defeated through [armed conflict] but after the conflict, the state

was under the total control of the winner. So whether we like it or not there was

state and a country which was run by the military authorities. But this time, I told

them, that if we use armed confrontation [in politics] the state will not exist anymore.

So what will be the life of the people, what will be the country's future? We have

to be very careful, we fought each other in the past, but finally we formed a coalition

government. If we fight each other again, there will be no winner and no loser. And

sooner or later we would be talking again. So why [fight] again?

Post: You recently made a speech about the importance of the state, it being

more important than any individual party. Was that comment directed to people within

your own party as much as to the other parties?

That was a general political remark. It applies to everyone in the current situation,

both Funcinpec and the CPP. But it was directed particularly at Serei Kosal. We are

a coalition government and I am the Minister of Interior, I am his boss. So when

we give orders to our subordinates, they must be carried out. But instead of following

orders he requests instructions from the other political party. This is the message

- he should not confuse the party and the government.

Post: How close is Cambodia to the brink, how close to armed conflict?

The situation as we go into the new year is very tense, very critical. But I am

convinced that it will be resolved. Why? Because the leadership of the CPP has agreed...

that we will not use armed forces to confront the others. We will use dialogue and

meetings to solve problems within the coalition. This is why I am convinced there

will be no clash...

Post: But the rhetoric of your colleague Hun Sen over the return of Norodom

Sirivudh indicated Cambodia was close to flash point. What did Hun Sen hope to achieve

by taking a tough stance? Surely it did nothing but contribute to the tension?

I don't know what Hun Sen [hoped to achieve]. But the Second Prime Minister, [Funcinpec]

General Nhek Bun Chhay and co-Minister of Interior You Hockry have agreed to respect

the legal procedure as far as Prince Sirivudh is concerned. Everybody believes that

he can only return to Cambodia if there is a royal pardon or royal amnesty, but without

that he can not come back.

So if anybody wanted to use force to bring him back without an amnesty, force will

have to be used in response. Hun Sen after his statement [of meeting Sirivudh at

the airport with tanks and rocket launchers] corrected himself. We know Hun Sen very

well and sometimes in his speeches he goes into his own [rhetorical] style. But if

you looked on the streets, there were no forces.

Post: The whole issue of an amnesty for Sirivudh has become very complicated

and now looks like a competition between Hun Sen and the King. Would it not be a

good gesture of compromise towards peace if Hun Sen was to agree to a pardon or amnesty?

Well, I don't know about Hun Sen but it is my own opinion that may-be some day

in the near future Hun Sen would be very willing - in the cause of peace and stability

- to request a pardon for Sirivudh.

Post: The real test for political stability and peace will be the elections.

Where are we at with the legislative preparations for elections?

The Interior Ministry has sent a draft of the Khum [commune] election law and

another law outlining the responsibilities of Khum leaders to the Council of Ministers.

Post: There is concern that Cambodia is running out of time to prepare properly

for both the Khum and national elections. When will these laws get to the National


I don't know precisely when, but everybody understands it is urgent and that it

is a priority for the agenda of the next cabinet meeting. Today [Jan 7] at the Interior

Ministry we started to debate the draft of the political party law. The big question

is whether we should allow members of the armed forces to be members of political

parties and we are considering three options now.

First is to maintain the situation as it is now. The second is to allow the situation

to continue for one more electoral term and the third is to ban soldiers and police

from being members of a political party. As citizens, soldiers and police should

be able to vote. But as soldiers and police they belong to the state and should not

be members of a political party - they have to maintain their neutrality. I think

this is important for maintaining political stability.

... as far as the 1998 national election is concerned the general tendency now is

to adopt the electoral system we had with UNTAC. We will have proportional representation

with the provinces as the constituencies. If this is confirmed, we will take the

UNTAC law and look at which parts we can keep and which parts we should change which

would make the process very quick. But at the same time we are preparing another

law in case we decide on a majoritarian system. But at this time the CPP favors a

proportional representation system... this has been put [informally] to the leadership

of Funcinpec and it seems that they agree. We in the CPP agree that, given the circumstances

and resources available, any system should only involve one round of voting.

Post: It has been suggested that the commune elections be held together with

the national elections or even abandoned altogether...

Personally, I have no opinion about this... if the coalition agrees not to have

Khum elections, then so be it. But I think it would better to have it because we

have already made a commitment to Khum elections. Given our resources, I would go

along with a proposal to hold both elections on the same day.

Post: How advanced is the proposal to hold both elections together?

So far there is no firm discussion about this between the two parties. But as

far as the CPP is concerned we are ready to go along with two elections and two elections

in one day.

Post: The big question is whether the CPP will hand over power if the party

loses the elections. Will it?

This question goes back to what happened after the 1993 elections [when elements

within the CPP threatened to secede in six eastern provinces]. I don't want to have

a controversial discussion about this... I know people are concerned about the CPP

because of this background. Even though we have not totally reformed within our party,

we can point to evidence over the past three years about our sincerity to play an

open game in democracy. We are more and more committed to democracy and the majority

of the CPP membership want to play democracy. The normal rules of the game of democracy

are that if you lose, you have to go into opposition and not use force. But I do

not think the CPP will lose the election.

Post: But how will you overcome this political distrust?

This is a big issue, it goes to the hearts and the minds of people and there is

a lot of work to be done. But the key to promoting trust is the structure which already

exists between the coalition partners. If we want trust from the Cambodian people

we have to promote trust in the leadership of the two parties so the lower ranks

will follow. We already have the structure - now we have to put it to work. Another

thing is that everybody must agree to play this democratic game. And we must keep

our objectives realistic - this is a big problem and we must deal with it step by


Post: What about the relationship between the Prime Ministers - are there any

signs the relationship is improving?

I think both leaders will meet quite soon and continue to meet to resolve their

problems through dialogue. I believe that very soon all the leaders of the two main

parties will engage in better dialogue.

Post: Was there any one thing which contributed to the breakdown of the relationship

between the two PMs?

As you know this goes back to March 1996 [with the issue of district level power

sharing]. Things started to get better but then we had the breakaway from the Khmer

Rouge and then we had the Sirivudh issue. There are a lot of problems coming from

the integration of the Khmer Rouge, but if we compare the problems to what they were

before - war and the waste of the nation's resources - it is much better. Now we

have some practical problems with the integration of police and military forces and

we must put together the administration.

Post: What progress has been made in terms of convincing the remaining hard

line Khmer Rouge to abandon their struggle?

This is my new year's wish - that the remaining Khmer Rouge will come back into

the nation. I believe we can solve it in a peaceful way. We have some inside information

about the situation in Anlong Veng from administration officials and the military.

The people who live there are more and more desperate not to continue this war. There

are more people who want to join the government.

Post: Are there ongoing contacts and negotiations with the hard liners?

There are no formal meetings or anything, but I have a great hope [that the war

will end].

Post: What about the policy of the Thai government and the suggestion that

Thailand has reopened trade with the Khmer Rouge?

I think the Royal Thai govern-ment's policy with regard to Cambodia is changing

with the leadership of General Chavalit. Their policy is that the Royal government

is the only legitimate authority in Cambodia but I believe there are some ill-intentioned

people - officials, businessmen and soldiers - who want to make a profit from dealing

with the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng.

Post: And Cambodia - what is your policy for a prosperous future?

As a new year hope... there is only one thing, democracy within a legal framework.

Only political stability can promote an atmosphere for free and fair elections. Both

parties should not have the ill intention to participate in what I call an arms race

to build up the forces of each party. This is the wrong direction. We must strengthen

the structure of the state, not the parties.

We have to work to the spirit of the constitution so individuals cannot benefit at

the cost of the people.

...Cambodia's problems will remain until we embrace the spirit of democracy. In my

capacity as the person in charge of civilian security, I believe the problems with

all types of criminality are a result of political instability. Our job to maintain

security for the people will be easier with political stability. Only by fully controlling

weapons in this country can we have security, but we cannot control arms if the political

parties are involved in an arms race.


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