Sam Rainsy: I’ll be a better PM than Hun Sen
Cambodia’s best-known opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), says he is determined to overthrow the entrenched “Hun Sen regime”. He claims he won the July 28, 2013 election. He has led a series of protests in Phnom Penh. He has now agreed to join a “Joint Committee for Electoral Reform.” Is he willing to strike a deal with Hun Sen? The Nation’s Suthichai Yoon caught up with him in Phnom Penh last week. Excerpts from the hour-long exclusive interview:
It’s a bargaining position, I think he’s prepared for some concessions, because without concession, there can be no negotiation.
But before you agree to this joint committee, did you detect any signs of concessions from Hun Sen?
Yes, we have received signals, received some indication that the election could be held … before the normal end of the term, which is July 2018, so it could be held before.
But you have been demanding elections before the end of this year.
Yes, we have to make some concession also. Actually, we would like to have elections within six months, within this year, this would be excellent for us, but we couldn’t have everything we want. So we will be flexible, and hope that the CPP will also show some flexibility.
Is there a timeframe you are debating or trying to reach an agreement between the two sides?
I hope that we can reach an agreement in the next few months, because the country is facing problems.
Will you go back to the streets if negotiations fail?
Then we would, but if negotiations proceed smoothly, then we’ll continue to negotiate without calling for a new demonstration.
But the government has banned new protests; you cannot gather more than 10 people?
Yes, but many friends of Cambodia from the international community are putting pressure on the Hun Sen government to restore our liberties.
You think you can win the next election?
Definitely, we have already won the last election. We won the last election.
How many seats you think you won?
More than the CPP, there only 2 parties, we actually won more seats than CPP, at least 63, the most for them is 60 seats, making a total 123.
So you had a majority?
In reality, yes, but the result as proclaimed by CPP is not reflective of the will of the people. It’s a distortion, that’s why we are asking for an investigation into the irregularities that have marred the last election.
But Hun Sen says there will be no investigation into alleged fraud in the election?
But the whole world condemned the election, we have recently got resolutions from the European Parliament, the Australian Senate, and the US Congress re-cently passed a bill calling for an investigation as independent observers have exposed the irregularities, and have shown that the last election was not free and fair.
Between your two demands – early election and investigation into fraud – which is more important to you?
Now it would be early election, because we have to think ahead, as our supporters and the vast majority of Cambodian people are asking for new election, but provided the new election will be better organised than the previous one. That is why before holding a new election, we have to implement election reforms. This is why we have to set up the joint commission with CPP to revise and implement election reform.
So you’re not demanding the resignation of Hun Sen?
I think … we would be happy with an early election because we know that after the next election, if they are organised election properly, PM Hun Sen will go anyway.
So you’re ready to be prime minister?
I think it would reflect the mandate of the Cambodian people.
You think you can run the country better than Hun Sen?
Why and How?
Because this country is going down the drain. The people are not happy, they suffer from the fact that the current regime, Hun Sen’s family, cronies are just selling the country to foreign interests.
Some critics do not believe that you or your team can run the country yet; that you do not have enough experience in running the country?
Sometimes it is better to have no experience rather than to have experience in corruption, in crime, in destroying the country. It’s better not to have that kind of experience, but we have many supporters who have experience, expertise in all fields and we’ll mobilise all the human resources available, including those working for the current regime. They are just part of the bureaucracy, civil servants, they have been receiving bad orders, but they are looking forward to have a new leadership for the country, and they will serve the country with loyalty.
What will be your top your agenda if you are PM?
I will put forward three words: Rule of law. This is what needs to be implemented.
You don’t think there’s rule of law here now?
No. Today there is rule of the guns, rule of money and rule of PM Hun Sen and family. This has to be replaced with rule of law.
But PM Hun Sen’s influence has been so deeprooted, he’s been running the country for at least 28 years, how do you uproot such an entrenched power base?
I think a few days or a few weeks before the fall of many dictators, people could have made the same remark about the fall of Nicholae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Ben Ali. Many people said those dictators have been in power for decades, so they will stay in power forever. This kind of reasoning is wrong. On the contrary, the longer they stay in power, the shorter the time they will be in power.
Do you think the army will follow your orders if you suddenly become prime minister?
The whole population, and the army, they have their parents, relatives, wives, children with us. They are not going to kill their own parents and relatives.
I notice that the young people are more outspoken, they now express their opinions openly, but when I came here 10-12 years ago, they would not talk publicly against the govt, but now they talk openly. How has this change come about?
Because this is the new generation. About 70 per cent of the population are under 30. So they are more educated, more critical, more demanding and they want to change the leadership of country, because since they were born, less than 30 years ago, they have only seen Mr Hun Sen as PM.
They have seen only one PM in their life so far?
Yes, but they are more educated, have access to Internet, they travel as migrant workers especially to Thailand and they see and compare Cambodia with neighbouring countries, which have changed leadership on a regular basis. That’s why neighbouring countries are more developed, people are more happy. Countries that keep the same leadership for 30-40 years are the most backward countries like North Korea, some African countries, leadership like Mr Mugabe [Zimbabwe president], all kinds of dictators. Young people understand that we need new ideas, new inspiration, new leadership.
But you are not a young man. How do you inspire young people; you are 64 this year, not young?
But I share the same ideas and same hopes as these young people.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, social media you think have a role to play in what you call a big change?
Definitely, the new generation is better informed and can be better mobilised quickly thanks to Facebook mainly. The opposition does not have any access to any TV or modern broadcast media.
You are not allowed on TV at all?
Never get interviewed on TV?
Newspapers cannot interview you?
No. TV is the monopoly of the ruling party for 30 years.
Not even one minute?
Not even 1 minute.
When you speak publicly, they are never reported?
Never, they ignored us. But even so, people support us, they know what we are doing and fighting for, it’s mainly through Facebook.
So you have been using Facebook, quite actively too?
I’ve been watching yesterday and you put up the clips when you went out to meet villagers.
And you also have web TV?
Yes, but it is through FB, YouTube. It’s not traditional TV.
But a lot of people follow you?
Yes, fortunately, and more people will do so.
This is quite a recent trend, but before social media, how did you reach out to the people?
Mobile phones. Much better than nothing. Word of mouth. Effective enough.
How do you see the influence of social media on the next election? Do you think it will have more influence than before?
You’ve just mentioned that the people in general, and young people in particular, are no more afraid, because they know that they – those who support the opposition – outnumber the supporters of Hun Sen. In the villages, people come out and say they want change, and they support the opposition. Ten years ago, they would never dare to do this. But now in any village, the villagers know that the majority of the people in any village support the opposition, so why should they be afraid of the ruling party. It should be the other way around.
What would you tell your voters about your strong points? Why should they make you PM? Tell me three strong points?
Give the country back to them, give Cambodia back to Cambodian people, give their land back to the farmers because Hun Sen has granted 99-year-concessions to a large number of private and foreign companies. Land grabbing and land confiscation is a major problem in this agricultural country. Countless farmer have lost their land. The situation is ripe for big change. And also corruption is so rampant. The government has no money to pay decent salary to civil servants. They are obliged to resort to petty corruption but they are not happy. They say the real problem is not survival corruption at the low level, the real problem is the corruption at the top level of the government. Also, factory workers get very low salary, also because of corruption. Private companies, especially garment companies, have to pay heavy bribes to government officials, to army generals, and they don’t have enough funds or resources left to increase the salaries of workers. So, workers understand this. We have to put an end to government corruption in order for workers to get salary increases.
When you talk of strong points, people will ask you in what way are you better than Hun Sen – as a person, as a leader?
I serve my country and I only serve my country. Whereas Hun Sen serves a foreign country. A foreign country…
The country which has put him in power since the very beginning, more than 30 years ago.
One of your weak points, according to your critics, is they say you are anti-Vietnam?
I’m not anti anybody, anti any foreign country. I’m pro-Cambodia. I have to defend Cambodia’s interests and to resist any attempt to control or even to destroy my country for another country to swallow.
So if you become PM, you would have a neighbour who doesn’t like you and you don’t like them either – Vietnam. How would you improve relations with Vietnam if you become PM?
It is not a matter of liking or not liking. It’s a matter of respecting each other, but you must start by respecting yourself first. If you sell your country to a foreign country, [it means] you don’t even respect yourself, so other people will look down upon you. But when a new leadership in Cambodia shows that they want to defend their country, love and respect their country, then countries around us will also start to respect Cambodia.
You have been accused of using the word Yuon, which is considered by Vietnamese as insulting?
It’s the same way, same word you in Thailand use to call the Vietnamese. So there’s nothing wrong.
But maybe the intonation in Thailand and Cambodia is different. It’s the same word, I know. We also call Vietnamese Yuon, but not in an insulting way?
In Cambodia also, it’s similarly neutral. It’s the CPP propaganda backed by Vietnam. They want us to call them Vietnam, the way they like to be called. But this is against our tradition, language and culture. We have known them as Yuon for centuries, 4-5 centuries and the world Vietnam was invented 50-60 years ago. And they want to change our habit. You know in the 1980s, 1810-1820s Vietnam at that time, it was not Vietnam. They invaded us and they forced us to change our habits, language to speak Vietnamese, to use the same words as them. We refused and we got killed, massacred. And now it’s the same, because they control Cambodia, they want us to use the same words as them but the resistance has continued and will continue.
Among the Cambodian people, do you sense that there is negative feeling towards the Vietnamese?
Not negative against anybody. They are unhappy, and they suffer because their country is going down the drain. It is controlled through our current government, which is a puppet government. Our country is controlled by a foreign country. So we are very sad.
In what way has Vietnam influenced Hun Sen in a bad way. Any examples?
They have colonised Cambodia. Look at the economy, it is under control of a Vietnamese company: telecommunications, telephone. In Thailand it is a very sensitive industry, the tourist industry. Airline is a Vietnamese company. Even Angkor Wat is controlled and managed by a Vietnamese company or someone very close to Vietnam. The Vietnamese company has received as 99-year concession hundreds of thousands of hectares and they have been destroying the forests in order to say that they are developing the country…They have destroyed a large portion of Cambodia forests.
But there are also Singapore, Japanese and Thai investors?
Very little. If you look at the breakdown, the investment, especially the most destructive investment, is controlled by Vietnamese companies.
So if you become PM, how are you going to handle Vietnamese economic influence in Cambodia?
Everybody, whether they are Cambodian, foreigners, Vietnamese, Thai , Chinese, American, Japanese will be treated in the same way. Equality before the law. So they will have to respect the law and we will not allow 99-year concessions. We have to think of our farmers’ interest first. We must give back their land to farmers because nothing is a worse situation than the one of landless farmers. They have become beggars, desperate. They have nothing to sell except their children going to prostitution, human trafficking. So it’s terrible. We have to give back their land to farmers.
So you don’t regret your role in the incident at the Vietnamese border, where you were accused, and sued in court for encouraging local people to remove the border marker?
You know the current situation vindicates me, because I just went to the place where I uprooted the so-called border pole.
You did it yourself at that time?
Yes, with supporters. Now the Vietnamese have gone back to the original border, so the land is still Cambodian. Had I not uprooted those border poles, Vietnam would have taken the lands already. So, the farmers, they like me very much. They are very grateful. They say ‘we’re fortunate that Sam Rainsy came to defend our land’.
So you will do it again and again if it happens again right?
Yes, because our farmers’ land is our country’s territory, so it’s our duty to defend our country.
What would be your weak points compared to Hun Sen?
I would never kill anybody. Hun Sen would not hesitate. Hun Sen is very good at clinging on to power, at surviving as the political leader and in the Cambodian context, he would do anything to remain, at any cost, to remain the top leader of this country. For me, I would give up if I have to kill, if I have to destroy the country, to make millions of people unhappy, I would give up. Okay, whoever would continue, let them do so. So this is why we have only peaceful and non-violent ways. We have to be patient, and sometimes we have to sacrifice some of our people in a non-violent way, but when they kill us, we don’t respond.
So, you’re saying you are not as tough as Hun Sen?
Yes, but I believe that in the modern world, you don’t need to be a criminal to be in power.
Will you be a soft leader?
No . What do you mean by soft?
Meaning that you would hesitate to make decisions that are difficult?
No, you have to stick to the principle. You have to be firm. Because if you fight for your country for a cause that is supported by the vast majority of the people, then you have to be strong, strong in your will, determination.
Apart from Vietnam, there are also issues with Thailand. How would you handle Thailand if you are PM, especially the Preah Vihear issue?
You know I’ve lived in Europe for many years, and I’m fascinated by the European Union, the EU as a regional grouping. I dreamed of a new Asean built on the same model as the EU. This trend of grouping would be based on common values, on democratic values, on respect for human rights, good governance, rule of law. I think if we share common values, we will become the best of friends and the best of allies, working for common prosperity, I’m also fascinated and inspired by the reconciliation between France and Germany, which had been fighting each other for centuries, but eventually, after the end of war, they achieved reconciliation. They work together, share common values, built the core of the EU which is a real success story. I dream of an Asean built on the same model, even though Cambodia-Thailand on the one hand, Cambodia-Vietnam on the other hand have not always been friendly to each other. But we can, and must and will achieve reconciliation. Like France and Germany we must work together for peace and common prosperity.
Sam Rainsy: Peaceful change coming for Cambodia
The country’s opposition leader reveals he is willing to cooperate with Hun Sen in building a new Cambodia and would offer the prime minister a pardon when he relinquishes his rule. But after years of de facto dictatorship, many dangers remain on the road to reform. The Nation’s Suthichai Yoon caught up with him in Phnom Penh. Excerpts from the second half of their hour-long interview:
You know, when you look from a distance – Cambodia – you realise that Thailand is much more mature in terms of political evolution. You have an independent judiciary, this is crucial. In Cambodia, the justice system is under the control of the ruling party. This is why the situation is so bad. We are blocked, but in Thailand, at least the judiciary is independent and can render decisions that can move the situation forward in a fair way. In Cambodia, it is impunity that prevails. The prevailing impunity has allowed Hun Sen to stay in power for a long time, and the justice system is used by Hun Sen as a political tool to crack down on and eliminate his opponents and to defend his reign and rule. So from that point of view Thailand is in much better shape. Second point: in Thailand you have an independent electoral commission, nobody contests the result of elections. After each election, the winner, the loser, the ruling party, the opposition, they all recognise that the people could vote – one man, one vote. And on the whole, the results reflect the will of the Thai people. But in Cambodia, any election is a distortion of the will of the people, and that is why we don’t accept the result of elections, which have been rigged and marred by countless irregularities. And it isn’t only the opposition but all the independent observers, national and international, that say the last election was the worst election we have had. So from these two points – an independent justice system and an independent electoral commission – Thailand is much more advanced than Cambodia.
You know that Prime Minister Hun Sen is close to Prime Minister Yingluck and Thaksin. Do you think there could be any similarity between here and Thailand in the way the powerful or those close to one another have cracked down on your position?
No. If such a thing was confirmed, it would be a violation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord on Cambodia, which calls for Cambodia to be neutral, not to take sides in any conflict in any neighbouring country. So the new relationship in Cambodia will be strict and will abide by this provision of the Paris peace agreement.
The Hun Sen government has rejected any suggestion that it is supporting the Thai government, but there are accusations that Cambodian soldiers have sneaked into Thailand to help in the struggle against protesters.
I cannot say anything, because I don’t have reliable evidence, but there is reliable evidence that Khun Thaksin has come to Cambodia and has been an adviser to Hun Sen.
Is he officially an advisor to PM Hun Sen ?
Yes. Hun Sen appointed him as a personal advisor and Thaksin accepted, but he subsequently resigned. But even for one minute this was not appropriate, not even for one minute. When there’s a problem in a neighbouring country, we should refrain from giving any indication that we are taking sides.
The situation in Thailand is deadlocked because both sides refuse to negotiate. But here, you have at least agreed to form a joint committee to negotiate. How could Thai protesters and the Thai government learn from your model?
No! We want to learn from you, we want to set up an independent electoral commission, we want to have an independent judiciary. Our situation is worse than yours. At least in Thailand, people can express their views, can demonstrate. Here in Phnom Penh you cannot demonstrate – up to nine people gathered together is alright, but more than nine and you can go to jail. And if you resist, they can come and shoot us. At least you have more freedom in Thailand. But I feel very sorry about Thailand. I think there are certain people or a country that want to destabilise Thailand for their own long-term objectives; this is very sad and very dangerous. I hope that all Thais, regardless of political affiliation, will come together to strengthen national unity. Don’t let anybody destabilise, divide you.
Are you suggesting that a foreign country is trying to destabilise Thailand?
In Cambodia also, they are trying to destabilise Cambodia.
When a country has ambitions on a neighbouring country, they will want to destabilise the target country to make it weaker. Then they can control that country easily.
So, you don’t think we can learn anything from you in terms of ending street demonstrations, sitting down and starting negotiations for a reform agenda?
Yes we are starting to negotiate reform of the election system. We are negotiating to set up a new electoral commission which would be more independent than the existing one, and we are looking at Thailand as a model for the process of selecting or forming an independent and respected electoral commission, so we have to learn from you. Also, you have a very strong civil society, respected journalists, judges, lawyers who speak their mind. This is excellent; in Cambodia we have very little.
You are looking forward to building that?
Yes. We want to encourage this so that people can be independent and can speak according to their conscience, and not out of fear or personal interest. Because this country is under the total control of Hun Sen, even professionals – whether lawyers, architects or physicians – don’t dare to criticise the regime. By doing so you will lose everything – clients, contracts, and you will be concerned for your own safety. This is a vicious cycle that explains why dictatorships last so long.
you are the leader of the opposition, the most prominent enemy of Hun Sen. Aren’t you afraid of being murdered, assassinated?
Since the beginning, when I committed myself to fighting for justice in my country and to opposing the current regime, I have been aware I have only three possible fates: being killed, being jailed or being forced to into exile. I have experienced the first two, but I’m aware that all three possibilities can arise anytime.
So you realise you can get killed at anytime?
How do you protect yourself from that?
I don’t have time to think about it. If I thought about the possibility of getting killed, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Some people say that if you are not afraid to die, you will die only once. But if you are afraid to die, you die a little every day, so you are not the same person you used to be.
But we are human beings, we are afraid of death. You must have some spiritual inspiration to say I’m not afraid of death?
I’m too busy.
And also, time is running out, right? We are not getting any younger.
I’m prepared for that, I’m preparing the young generation to be qualified to take on the destiny of this country.
So, you are really confident that change is just around the corner for Cambodia?
Yes, it’s inevitable. I’m very confident that the wind of freedom is blowing stronger all over the world and I’m sure that this wind will reach Cambodia very soon.
What if Hun Sen asks you to form a coalition government with him. Will you agree to that?
No. Hun Sen asked me a different thing at our last meeting in September.
What did he say?
He asked me to prepare an amnesty law for him.
Wow! Meaning that he expects you to become prime minister?
No, not that clear. But he realises that he cannot remain in power forever. He needs to think about a smooth evolution, so he asked for an amnesty law that would protect three persons, the Senate president, president of national assembly and the prime minister. The Senate president is Chea Sim, who is also president of the ruling [Cambodia People's] party. The president of the national assembly is Heng Samrin who is also honorary president of the CPP. And Hun Sen is vice president of the CPP. So he asked for amnesty for these three top leaders.
But you are not in the position to issue an amnesty, so why did he ask you?
He thinks ahead. He told me that “we, the ruling party, cannot initiate such a law, but if you, the opposition, initiate such a law, the ruling party will support it”.
It seems such a strange request to the opposition leader…
This means things have changed in Cambodia.
What did you reply?
Of course, “yes”.
You said yes?
So, you are colluding with him?
For the sake of Cambodia and to preserve peace.
So you have agreed to forgive him if you become PM. You would pardon him for the things he has done to the country?
I think it’s understandable that he wants his life to be preserved, he wants his freedom to be preserved, he wants his dignity to be preserved, at least a portion of his wealth to be preserved, and there are similar examples all over the world of such requests being granted in order to assure a smooth transition.
So he would remain in the country if you assumed power? He would be the legal opposition leader and you would not ask for investigations?
No. There are many possibilities, we will not going into details. We have to study different possibilities – from the legal point of view, from the humanitarian and political point of view. For example, he could be made a senator for life.
So he realises that the end is near for him?
Yes, and that his desire to found a dynasty is not realistic. He cannot be like Kim Il-sung. In the modern world, it is impossible to found a dynasty of leaders.
You are willing to compromise in this?
Yes, for the sake of the country, for a smooth transition to avoid bloodshed.
Did you ask him for a pardon? Are you still under investigation? Will you be subjected to any punishment if cases are raised against you?
Any independent investigation would clear me of any charges, so I’m not concerned. Those who are concerned are those who committed crimes, which is not the case for me.
Have all cases against you now been cleared or are some still in the courts?
Not yet, still pending, but once the courts become independent, those charges will be automatically dropped.
And you don’t expect a repeat of having to go into exile again, as you have done three times before?
Including one time in Thailand.
You think that is it?
I think it’s finished now. I think the country is at a turning point, we have learnt lessons from the past. Hun Sen and I, we have to find a real and lasting solution for Cambodia.
And you think a real and lasting solution is possible?
Yes. It is necessary, and what is necessary must be made possible.
Does anything keep you awake at night with worry?
No. I’m very confident, I see this tide of young people coming. The new generation, 70-80 per cent of people, they want change, more modernity, justice, decent living conditions – which they can’t have under the current regime. So there will be change. I hope to be alive [to see it], not to get killed before [it happens].
If not Sam Rainsy, who else can lead this country?
Oh, many people, we are training them.
Do you have a No 2?
We won’t reveal their names, otherwise they would get killed too.
But you do have them on the list?
Yes, I have prepared one.
You don’t see any alternative to lead the country on the other side, the ruling CPP?
I haven’t received any applications from them.
So you are preparing for the day when a new dawn will come to Cambodia and you will be right in the centre?
No. The Cambodian people will be at the centre.
Where will you stand in the landscape of the new Cambodia?
We will see, because this is not so important for me. The most important thing is to bring about a democratic change in Cambodia?
And you, personally, don’t have to be PM or lead the country?
That is not necessary. Any person can be replaced, but your country cannot be replaced. There’s only one country.
But I look at Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi, struggling against dictatorship for so long, like you, and now preparing to run for president?
I hope she can. When I met her last March she told me she was preparing to do so – to change the constitution to allow her to be a [presidential] candidate. … She said laws should not be written for or against any particular person but should apply to everybody. And she wants the balance of power to be equitable, acceptable, and not so the military have a big share of power. So I admire her. To some extent, we are following her path, to peacefully change the constitution, the law and the mindset of dictators.
I also get along very well with [Malaysian opposition leader] Anwar Ibrahim.
If the three of you – Anwar, Suu Kyi and you – got together, it would be quite a scene. Have you three met together?
Not all three, but last year in Kuala Lumpur I met both separately. I shared views with Anwar and he asked me to convey some ideas to Suu Kyi. I told Suu Kyi that Anwar and I would like the three of us, as opposition leaders in three Asean countries in democratic transition, to work together. And the Lady said yes.
For you and your friends in Asean who trying to change their respective countries, it’s going to be a big, big mission. But from what you’ve told me, you are very confident, and a lot of people in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia are wishing you the best of luck.
Thank you very much and I also wish Thailand the best of luck. I hope the Thai people will find national unity in the near future.