Cambodia: An Interview with Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy

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Cambodia: An Interview with Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy

“Hun Sen is an anachronism. He’s finished. It’s only a matter of time.”

Cambodia: An Interview with Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy
Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

These are troubled times in Cambodia. A disputed election last year prompted ongoing protests and opposition boycotts. Emboldened by a surprisingly strong performance in the July 28 polls, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been insistent on calling for an investigation into election irregularities. Strongman ruler Hun Sen has been equally stubborn in resisting them.

Entering 2014, and the protests have spread, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Joining the CNRP were unions, notably from the country’s crucial garment industry, demanding a hike in their minimum wage.

Those protests prompted a government crackdown last week, resulting in a number of deaths and throwing the protests into disarray. Court summons were issued for opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and Cambodia is on the verge of returning to a police state.

The Diplomat met with Rainsy in the weeks prior to these latest developments. Despite the demands of a grueling schedule, the 64-year-old former finance minister remained indefatigable. Undeterred by Germany’s recent pledge of a substantial increase to the aid budget of Cambodia, Rainsy maintained his faith in the “discrete type of diplomacy”: “this [Germany’s aid pledge] is what was announced officially, what was made public. But I’m sure there is strong advice behind [the announcements],” Rainsy said, adding that “we have many friends, many people who understand the situation in Cambodia. And I think they are at least putting the brake on bureaucrats who want to resume business as usual with the Cambodian government.”

Whatever is taking place behind the scenes, publically the international community remains broadly quiet. The escalation of the party’s sporadic protests of recent months marks a redoubling of domestic efforts to oust the government and a whole-hearted commitment to widespread mobilization as the leverage required to do so. Rainsy explained that “the pressure from the grassroots is to remain strong, not to negotiate or bargain for any position,” and the sheer scale of events since have largely vindicated Rainsy’s wager that a latent appetite for sustained direct action was ripe to be capitalized.

With the CNRP’s attention fixed on the streets though, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have pushed ahead regardless of the opposition’s refusal to take up their seats in the National Assembly. Despite facing no discernible international or domestic security threat, in November the Cambodian government approved a 17 percent boost in military spending, up to $468 million for 2014. This was roughly double the amount allocated to health expenditure or education. The announcement was greeted by silence from the CNRP. Rainsy explained the reticence by arguing that “budgets in Cambodia are just paper. They are very theoretical. Budgets in Cambodia have never been implemented. There are parallel budgets, there are ways of fooling the public so we are not going to play that game.”

In other quarters, some suggested this was a missed opportunity to perform an important democratic function, a function not necessarily mutually exclusive to the CNRP’s continuing boycott of the National Assembly. Speaking to The Diplomat, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (who is rumored to have political ambitions of his own), said that the opposition has “missed so many opportunities.” Virak added: “If they structure it properly they can still criticize and [conduct] a proper analysis and come up with proper policy [proposals] through the media. You don’t have to do it through the National Assembly.”

But Rainsy stressed that his is a party of protest, not of opposition in the parliamentary sense, instead laying bare his radical ambitions to provoke civil unrest by punishing the government’s growth figures: “We will continue the boycott [of the National Assembly] to deny legitimacy to the current government and because of [resulting] economic confidence problems, the economic situation will become problematic. And economic problems will lead to social problems and social problems will lead to political problems.” Establishing an independent investigative committee remains indefinitely the CNRP’s singular focus, and in the meantime, Rainsy insists, it is not his party’s role to offer concrete legislative alternatives to those of the government. Rainsy dismissed the idea of forming an extra-parliamentary shadow cabinet to scrutinize government policy, explaining “that is not a real issue,” and that “we stand on very high moral ground. We just want the truth to be exposed.”

Rainsy is buoyed by recent events across the Kingdom’s northwestern border, following Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s call for snap elections in February. After a controversial amnesty bill was passed by Thailand’s lower house in November, mounting anti-government pressure has led to an early poll to decide Thailand’s political future. Rainsy said: “now we have the same ideas, because the Cambodian people have even more compelling reasons [to protest] than the Thai demonstrators…we feel much anchorage from these events in Thailand.”

Rainsy described the situation in Cambodia as equally “unforeseeable, unpredictable” as those in Thailand, suggesting that “if a female, a young prime minister was dignified and courageous enough to resign because she is facing a protest, a contest, a legitimacy problem” then CNRP supporters should expect Prime Minister Hun Sen “to follow Yingluck’s example.”

Despite this optimism, John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy explains that although the Cambodian protestors do indeed have stronger arguments that the current government suffers from a legitimacy deficit, the Thai protestors have more friends and in higher places: “in Thailand, yellow-shirt protestors are identified with the urban elite and have powerful allies in the armed forces, Democrat Party, judiciary and Royal Palace” Ciorciari said via email. Given Hun Sen’s stranglehold on the military, the judiciary and the press, the CNRP are rank outsiders: “that makes it much less likely Cambodian protestors will win the types of concessions Thai yellow-shirts have won,” Ciorciari added.

During the interview Rainsy again repeated the slur that had landed him in hot water earlier in the day: “Hun Sen cannot do less than a Thai female prime minister otherwise he will appear as a coward, someone who is very cheap,” he said, having urged Hun Sen not to be “weaker than a female” at Freedom Park that morning. This year’s elections saw the first drop in the number of female MPs for 20 years, and the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) issued an open letter two days later expressing “grave concerns” over the CNRP’s use of “derogatory comments” at a “crucial time for encouraging gender equality, in politics and in all other areas of society.”

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.”

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.