Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

E-mailing in Political Change

Can a political party change an oppressive system from abroad? Cambodia’s self-exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, hopes so.

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On January 27, as the trial of Cambodia’s main opposition leader drew to a close, armed police officers and security officials stood guard outside the closed gates of the Svay Rieng Provincial Court.

The two-year jail sentence awarded to Sam Rainsy, who was sentenced in absentia, was handed down behind closed doors. He was convicted of inciting racial discrimination and damaging public property and also fined $2,000.

Such treatment isn’t unusual for lawmakers in Cambodia. Despite the opposition and media’s best efforts, lawmakers and journalists are frequently hit with lawsuits by the ruling party. It’s probably no surprise then that, according to international NGO Freedom House, Cambodia ranked 132 out of 195 countries in terms of press freedom.

Rainsy’s latest brush with the justice system stemmed from his now infamous trip in October last year to Chantrea district’s Samraong commune in Svay Rieng Province, which borders Vietnam. While visiting the area, Rainsy uprooted six border demarcation posts, because, he said, they had been placed in the rice farm of Meas Srey and not on Vietnamese territory. Srey and another village were for their part both handed one-year jail sentences.

Rainsy’s actions and vocal criticism of the government’s border demarcation process riled lawmakers in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Government officials denied villagers’ accusations of Vietnamese encroachment and voted to strip Rainsy of his political immunity so he could face a criminal investigation over the incident. However, Rainsy fled the country to a home in Paris from which he now runs the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

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‘You’ll see new and unexpected developments in the coming months,’ Rainsy told this writer by e-mail. ‘Unprecedented evidence of large-scale border encroachment by Vietnam; exposing of CPP neglect for our country’s interest and their trick to divert public attention to border issues with Thailand instead; international lawsuits involving Cambodia’s top leaders, renewed world attention on Cambodia following different initiatives taken abroad.’

Rainsy says he believes that by remaining free and living abroad, he can do more for Cambodia than if he returned and was forced to protest from a jail cell.

‘I want people to concentrate on issues rather than on my personal situation, which would be the case if I came back to Cambodia now,’ he says.

As part of an increasingly predictable political game, the SRP has petitioned King Norodom Sihamoni to pardon its leader and reinstate his parliamentary immunity (Rainsy was able to return home following a royal pardon after he expressed regret following a previous ‘enforced exile’ in 2006).

But how effective Rainsy’s overseas strategy is likely to be is open to debate. Although Rainsy maintains that his enforced exile proves he is a threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen, now in his 25th year in power, the fact is that he has effectively been ‘removed’ as head of the main opposition party for an unspecified period by the CPP. And, while the Cambodian Constitution does allow the King to pardon and grant amnesty, such requests have in the past been made by Hun Sen himself, who in this case has made abundantly clear he has no intention of doing.

Rainsy isn’t the first politician in recent months to be stripped of his immunity, nor to be threatened with the loss of a parliamentary seat, a fine and jail time by a ruling party apparently happy to use the justice system to do its bidding.

In August, prominent SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua was convicted of defaming Hun Sen in an almost comical ‘he said, she said’ legal battle that Sochua was forced to fight largely without a lawyer after her representative was warned his career could be ended.

Sochua announced in April she intended to sue Hun Sen over a speech broadcast on national TV in which he insulted a prominent woman, widely assume to be Sochua, using the colloquial insult ‘cheung klang’ or strong leg. However, Hun Sen counter-sued on the basis that her filing against him was itself defamation. The court ruled against Sochua, leaving her to appeal to the Supreme Court against the conviction and demand for a total of $4000 in fines and compensation.

Not one to take such injustice lying down, Sochua travelled around the United States and Europe with a public relations savvy more often seen in the West to try to secure support for her cause, including appearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington DC. However, the CPP dismissed all the accusations put forth at the commission as biased.

But Sochua continues to plead her case, and still holds out hope for change.

‘In a country that is led by the power of a single man, the opposition to such power doesn’t emanate only from a political party…The opposing force to dictatorship or undemocratic leaders can also be brought by the people themselves,’ Sochua says. ‘In Cambodia, this opposition movement is being formed despite various efforts by the government to silence the main opposition and by cracking down on the voices of dissidents.’

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‘The Sam Rainsy Party is the loyal opposition in parliament but an opposition movement to the Hun Sen government. SRP is not about Rainsy and he would never claim that the party is his own,’ she says, although she adds she expects him to continue to play a central part in any attempt at change.

‘Mr Rainsy has a very key role to play outside of Cambodia and his voice must be heard by the Cambodian people for hope to be sustained,’ she says, adding that modern communication technology should make his geographical location irrelevant.

Yet it remains unclear how many Cambodians will actually get to hear Rainsy’s distant voice. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, for example, a mere 0.3 percent of Cambodia’s 15 million people had internet access in 2007 (the most up-to-date figures available).

Meanwhile, Sochua says, the CPP will continue clamping down on its critics in an effort to maintain their political advantage. She says the first step in preventing this–and to stop future elections from being rigged–would be to ensure the neutrality of the National Election Committee and to invest in an independent judiciary.

‘Corruption must be dealt with, and the culture of patronage must be stopped,’ she says. ‘The merger of the opposition forces is a must and work is being done to put it into reality.’

And, despite CPP intransigence in the Rainsy case, there are some glimmers of hope that the party might be becoming more flexible. Last month, for example, Radio Free Asia reporter Sok Serey was acquitted in his disinformation case in Takeo Province.

‘We at Radio Free Asia are pleased our reporter has been acquitted of the baseless charges against him,’ says RFA President Libby Liu. ‘We hope this ruling will reverse the growing pattern of using Cambodia’s legal system to suppress free speech and freedom of press.’

A small start, perhaps. But a start nonetheless.