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Cambodia: An Interview with Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy (Page 2 of 2)

In response to pressure over Rainsy’s heated anti-Vietnamese campaign rhetoric, the CNRP issued their own statement back in late August proclaiming that the party “opposes violence, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.” This seems to have been long since forgotten and “Yuon,” (the racially-charged Khmer word for Vietnamese that was briefly dropped from CNRP speeches) is back as a firm and prominent part of the party’s lexicon. Rainsy took his team of staff to the deforested areas of Pray Lang in Kampong Thom province the morning of December 11 to voice concerns over a 6,155-hectare land concession granted in 2010, which has enabled Vietnamese firm CRCK to raze forests for rubber plantations and allegedly ship stockpiles of luxury timber across the border.  Given that a pioneering study recently conducted by the University of Maryland found that Cambodia has one of the world’s highest rates of forest loss and that widespread land disputes continue to be a “major issue” according to Surya Subedi, the Cambodian Human Rights U.N Special Rapporteur, these are serious and legitimate complaints.

The complaints were re-appropriated for the purpose of the CNRP’s nationalist discourse when, after marching across felled trees brandishing the Cambodian national flag, Rainsy stopped at a small rally at Sandan commune, Kampong Thom to declare that: “the Yuon are taking the Khmer hand to kill the Khmer people.” Speaking to an audience of about 200, he continued: “In Yuon companies, they only employ Yuon managers, but the Cambodians are only workers. So the Yuon come to Cambodia to spread their relatives, to form their families and then spread out. There will be so many Yuon in Cambodia that the Khmers will be the ethnic minority. The Yuon are like thieves stealing from the Cambodian people.”

Kem Sokha, Sam Rainy’s second-in-command, explained in an interview in August that this nationalist rhetoric is a strategy of unapologetic populism: “It’s the supporters that want to hear it from the politicians,” he said, adding that “Cambodians are very sensitive about the issue and if any politician doesn’t respond to that frustration you will be framed as unpatriotic or unaware of the truth.”

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As the CNRP continues to unrepentantly put forward a fierce anti-Vietnamese position, Phoak Kung, a Harvard-Yenching Doctoral scholar, argues that the CNRP may be neglecting the importance of convincing the wider voting public of the party’s suitability for office. Writing in The Diplomat, Kung suggests that the CNRP’s substantial gains at the national elections (seizing 55 of 123 seats) “don’t necessarily mean that voters fully trust the CNRP’s leaders to run the country.”

In response to criticism that the CNRP are yet to demonstrate their ability to govern should they gain the opportunity to do so, Rainsy points to his 18-month experience as finance minister nearly a decade ago when he was still a member of the royalist Funcinpec Party. In office he gained the reputation of a maverick crusader, ultimately being expelled from the party and stripped of his portfolio in 1995 (going on to form the Sam Rainsy Party, which in turn merged with the Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP). Rainsy explained that before taking office “people were very skeptical: ‘Do you have any human resources, competence or experience to take over the Ministry of Finance?’ I was alone.” During this time, despite presiding over 3,600 civil servants recruited by and officially affiliated to the CPP, “I just gave them different direction, different challenges, different instruction.” Rainsy is in little doubt that his leadership will sweep aside the “anachronistic forces” of a deeply entrenched network of patronage: “It is just the new political impulsion to put things right, to put the country back on track. You don’t have to dismiss every civil servant, the whole bureaucracy… we have to keep the same personnel, but the important thing is the spirit, the orientation.”

Rainsy makes clear that should he take office, he will be banking on an underlying anti-CPP sentiment that already exists within the corridors of state bureaucracy to engender the change his party promised on the campaign trail: “The point is many people are afraid to [voice] their support for the CNRP because they are civil servants or businessman. But once the CNRP is in power, there will no longer be a risk.”

On December 4, the official news agency of the Chinese Communist Party ran an article urging Hun Sen to address Cambodia’s “cronyism, rampant corruption, forced evictions, illegal immigration and lack of an independent judicial system” to “restore his popularity.” Should Hun Sen press ahead with a legislative agenda whilst the CNRP sit firmly beyond the walls of the National Assembly, are there concerns that the CNRP will appear marginalized and unable to claim any of the credit? Mr. Rainsy dismisses the prospect on the grounds that the prime minister’s promises of a reformist government are a “charm offensive” engineered “just for show, a lip service.” “Of course [the government] aren’t stupid. They must use the right language and push for reform” but “implementing reforms would undermine the very foundation of Hun Sen’s regime. The regime is based on clientelism…you have to belong to the clan to thrive,” he continued. “Hun Sen is an anachronism. He’s finished. It’s only a matter of time.”

George Steptoe is a freelance reporter based in Phnom Penh. 

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