“It’s easy to be the authoritarian leader of a poor agricultural nation when your chief opponent lives in an apartment near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Prime Minister Hun Sen has learned over the past decade,” an article published in June in the Cambodia Daily sardonically began. It was written in response to the decision by Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to go into self-imposed exile in November — for the fourth time in two decades — and the choice by the CNRP’s vice president, Kem Sokha, not to flee the country and instead go into hiding in Phnom Penh after summons were issued for his arrest in May.
The Cambodia Daily journalists stopped short of calling Sam Rainsy a coward, but left few readers guessing by quoting Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), who said in November: “[Rainsy] can’t take pride in himself as an equal to Aung San Suu Kyi. If he wants to be like her, he should be in prison for 20 years… In simple terms, he’s a coward.”
Such opprobrium is shared by others. “Mr. Rainsy is seen as a symbol of change in Cambodia, but he himself has never changed. He remains a coward, to be precise,” Ou Ritthy, a 28-year-old political science graduate, wrote on the youth-orientated political blog Politikoffee in November.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A coward, by definition, is one contemptibly lacking in the courage to do something; this begs the question of what, precisely, Sam Rainsy is being criticized for doing (or not doing). Is it at his lack of courage to stand up to the government, or to stick to his ideals, or merely face a spell in jail? Or is it his willingness to abandon the Cambodian people? These, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, one must find it in their own conscience to deride a man for seeking a life in liberty, albeit where his reputation is tainted in the eyes of some, rather than suffering in a Cambodian prison cell.
In any case, the question of whether Sam Rainsy is a coward or not is worthy of consideration, if only because in doing so it reveals a great deal about his political nature, and, arguably, about the future of Cambodian politics.
First, however, the acknowledgement must be made that he has come closer to assassination than many other politicians in the country. At a rally in 1997 in Phnom Penh, four grenades were tossed into the crowd. Sam Rainsy was saved by the actions of his bodyguard, who, taking the full force of an explosion, died shortly afterwards. All told, 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured, including an American citizen, forcing the FBI to investigate the attack. Later that year, Sam Rainsy avoided another grenade attack outside the Ministry of Interior.
Neither should one overlook that, as a child, he watched as his father was almost killed by the government. In 1959, after being accused of treason, Sam Sary fled Cambodia just in time to avoid the police that arrived at young Sam Rainsy’s home with a length of rope. Writing in his autobiography, We Didn’t Start the Fire, Sam Rainsy remembers that the rope was chilling evidence that his father was meant to share the fate of another politician, Dap Chhuon: “After being shot, [Chhuon’s] body was dragged through the streets of Phnom Penh at slow speed by a military vehicle. The blood-covered corpse slowly disintegrated until nothing recognizable remained.”
One need not be an expert in the human psyche to appreciate this must have left some residue of fear in Sam Rainsy’s mind. His family fled to France soon after this incident, where he remained in the early 1990s, and where one must begin to look at his political development.
It is sometimes said in private conversations amongst journalists and academics in Phnom Penh that Sam Rainsy mercurially swings between franco and cambodgien. Or, as he put it his autobiography: “Part of my identity, and my responsibility to my country… comes from the fact that I am a member of a disenfranchised overseas community that has never lost sight of its Cambodian roots.”
From the age of six until his forties, Sam Rainsy knew about Cambodia only from childhood memories, stories from other emigrees, and his work, in the 1980s, with an exiled Cambodian delegation fighting against Vietnamese “occupation” at the UN in New York — not through first-hand experience. He married in Paris, had his children in Paris, graduated from the Paris Institute of Political Studies, and got his first job as a financial analyst at the Banque Industreille et Mobiliere Privee in Paris, before making his way up the world of finance. In the same year that the Khmer Rouge took power, he and his wife, Tioulong Saumura, bought a house in the smart Parisian suburbs of Cormeilles-en-Parisis. This is not to say Sam Rainsy is too bourgeois or too cosmopolitan, just that he cut his political teeth not in Cambodia but in France.
After his return to Cambodia in the early 1990s — and almost two decades as the gravitational figure of Cambodia’s opposition politics — he has put a great deal of time and effort, some would say too much, in wooing Cambodians abroad. He is very much the chief spokesman and chief wanderer of the opposition’s internationalist wing. And for good reason. First, it is the anti-Hun Sen diaspora that pays the CNRP’s bill and keeps the opposition’s light on. And, second, Sam Rainsy appears to be convinced that the words of foreign statesmen are integral in the fight against the government, however misguided and anachronistic this might be.
Yet his internationalist bent puts him in stark contrast with the likes of Hun Sen and Kem Sokha, both of whom claim to be of “Cambodian soil.” Hun Sen has spoken of politicians of being Khmer “when it is easy” and foreign “when it is difficult.” (One might retort that the former deputy commander of the Khmer Rouge – who was born Hun Bunal, and only took the name Hun Sen after joining the KR – shouldn’t be so quick to admonish the identity crises of others.)
In light of Sam Rainsy’s near-constant goal of keeping Cambodia on the international retina, one can reason that his decision to go into exile in November was perfectly logical. Even during the months before this decision, he was a frequent flier, travelling regularly across Asia, Europe, and North America to court the Cambodian diaspora and foreign statesmen. If his latest exile provided anything, it was the time to continue what he does best – or, at least, what he does most frequently. Someone has to drum up the funds for the fight. As he wrote in his autobiography: “If there is a positive aspect to… exile, it is that I have been able to spend more time building support for [change] among the Cambodian diaspora.”
But Sam Rainsy’s cosmopolitan and globe-trotting nature only chalks up one half of his political character. In Hun Sen’s Cambodia, the journalist Sebastian Strangio describes the politician thusly: “Possessed of seemingly inexhaustible reserves of pluck and self-righteousness, [he] positioned himself as a gadfly and noble dissenter – one of the few incorruptible politicians in Cambodia.”
Conversing recently with Strangio, we spoke of Sam Rainsy’s determinist view of politics, and his unwavering faith that Cambodia’s demographics, increasingly young and urban, and the widespread discontent with the government, will naturally lead to his electoral success. “Sam Rainsy sees himself on the right side of history,” Strangio told me, “and Hun Sen on the wrong side.” In this Fukuyamaist view, authoritarianism and ideology are on the wane, and history’s assured, natural progression is toward liberal democracy and market capitalism. It is assured. It necessarily will happen.
“Cambodia emerged from isolation just as the ‘end of history’ moment arrived; the country became a vehicle and focus for all manner of Hegelian dreams,” Strangio said. Indeed, in the Hun Sen-Sam Rainsy dialectic, the latter is assured of eventual success.
Earlier this year I spoke to Mu Sochua, a CNRP member of parliament for Battambang province, who told me: “We have never lost a seat because [Sam Rainsy] is in exile… The party structure continues to work as usual.” Of course, this might reflect hubris in the opposition. Even Sam Rainsy admitted in his autobiography that “any country would suffer from the forced absence of the leader of the opposition party.” Nevertheless, Mu Sochua’s words reflect Sam Rainsy’s determinist bent, which might well have spread throughout the CNRP.
Because history is on his side, all that needs to happen to achieve power is to let history take its natural course — so the logic goes. Business must continue as normal, as must the party’s structure. The CNRP need only wait for the animosity felt by many Cambodians against the government to grow, the population to become younger, and the 2018 elections to roll around. And, by extension, in this view, the 2018 elections will be a natural repeat, and an aggrandized version, of the 2013 elections, in which the CNRP secured only 300,000 votes fewer than the ruling party. Exile, again, is purely logical for Sam Rainsy. If history is already written, then what more can he do to hasten it if he is in Cambodia or not?
(As I recently wrote in the Diplomat, such a view could be disastrous for the CNRP. The government, since 2013, has begun appropriating the its key policies, moving into its natural territory of social media, and has offered a future of mild reform that many Cambodians can see instead of the CNRP’s potentially problematic wholesale change.)
At this juncture, an aside is necessary: if Sam Rainsy can accused of cowardice, it should be over the insistence that his anti-Vietnamese sentiments are not racist. Anti-Vietnamese hatred has been a mainstay of Cambodian politics for centuries and one cannot explore it fully without spilling a considerable amount of ink. But, summarized, one of the CNRP’s most malefic weapons against the CPP and Hun Sen is the description of them as Vietnamese stooges; Phnom Penh is still controlled by Hanoi.
Sam Rainsy, however, claims his frequent use of the word “yuon” is not derogatory, as it simply means Vietnamese in the Khmer language. This may or not to be true, although it seldom matters. As the character Harold Abrahams says of prejudice, in Chariots of Fire, you can “catch it on the edge of a remark.” One only needs to catch the edges of remarks such as “the authorities said that the yuon did not take Khmer land” and “if I win this election, I will send the yuon immigrants back” to notice the intent of Sam Rainsy’s wordage.
I was once told by a CNRP politician, who I will refrain from naming, that the party’s use of anti-Vietnamese discourse is more political than heartfelt. It is arguably an effective way of securing votes, but this does little to minimize its immorality. One can never be too sure of how insincere this hatred is and, in any case, Sam Rainsy’s insistence that he can have his gateaux and still eat it – he can make racist comments and then claim not to be a racist – is worthy of censure. When moral backbones are under review, he must either accept the divisive intent of his words or stop using them.
To return to the matter at hand, the ongoing revisionism of Sam Rainsy from a democratic-icon to a coward deserves at least to be supplemented with one unquestionable fact: when the next general election rolls around in two years’ time, he will be 69 years old. Hun Sen, by contrast, will only be 65, and questions have already been raised about when he will step down. Time, therefore, may explain all. If Sam Rainsy is allowed, as he was for the 2013 elections, to return months before the 2018 election, it could be his last chance to take Cambodia’s top post and achieve his lifelong goal, which is somewhere between genuine political change and becoming prime minister.
Yet if one believes as much in historical irony as in historical inevitability, then the CNRP’s loss at the 2013 elections might reappear as a farce in 2018. And if Sam Rainsy doesn’t have his Suu Kyi moment in two years’ time and refuses to move aside to allow a younger crop of opposition politicians to emerge from the ranks – there is scant evidence of this yet – he will have to become accustomed to not only being called a coward but also a genuine obstacle to the development of Cambodia’s opposition politics.
David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.