Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Monday praised Burma’s growing independent foreign policy and democracy after attending the first-ever national congress of his Burmese counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Rainsy accused Cambodian leader Hun Sen of bowing to “foreign influences,” indicating Phnom Penh’s close links to neighbors China and Vietnam, and charged that he has cheated in elections to remain in power.
“Burma’s leaders are not the puppets of foreign countries and they didn’t cheat in their [most recent parliamentary] election as badly as the leaders in Cambodia,” he said after his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon at the weekend when her NLD held its first national meeting in decades.
Burma was closely linked to China during the decades of rule under the previous military junta, but President Thein Sein signaled a shift after taking power in 2011, including suspending the massive Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam hydro-electric project to the dismay of Beijing.
Sam Rainsy said that Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, has enjoyed much more political freedom under the country’s new government after decades of harsh military rule.
She was released from house arrest in November 2010 after Burma’s national elections.
The elections by the then military junta were deemed a farce by rights groups and some governments, but a series of by-elections called last year by President Thein Sein were seen as fair by the international community. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept the by-elections.
“This [situation] is unlike in Cambodia where the government has barred me from participating in the upcoming elections,” Sam Rainsy said.
Sam Rainsy said that Hun Sen has banned him from national polls in July as part of a bid to maintain power he has held since 1985.
Sam Rainsy, 63, who is head of the united opposition coalition National Rescue Party (NRP) and currently lives in Paris, faces up to 11 years in prison in Cambodia after his conviction on charges he says were part of a campaign of political persecution against him.
Part of Rainsy’s sentence stems from a conviction for publishing a “false map” of the border with Vietnam, claiming the country holds Cambodian territory with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People's Party’s blessing.
He called the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi an “honor” and applauded her for retaining the leadership of her political party after the group held internal elections.
“I am honored to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the nation’s democratic leader. She invited me to participate in her party’s congress—the first-ever congress in the last 25 years because of the dictatorship in Burma. Now Burma is open and it is better,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He said that he admired Aung San Suu Kyi’s “patience” with Burma’s quasi-civilian government in helping to promote reform in the country after decades of military misrule—and particularly her embrace of nonviolent means to advance change.
“She is very devoted and she is well-respected,” he said.
Rainsy said that he and Aung San Suu Kyi share similar ideas about bringing reform to their nations, but said that she has not presumed to tell him how to approach politics in Cambodia.
“She is patient, but the situation in Burma and Cambodia is very different,” he said.
“We must adapt according to the situation. Our goals are both to bring an end to dictatorships and to promote a healthy democracy.”
Rainsy said that he would not return to Cambodia “only to be imprisoned,” and that he would continue his work from outside of the country.
The conclusion of the NLD’s three-day national congress on Sunday saw Aung San Suu Kyi re-elected as head of the party, but was seen as a disappointment my some members who had hoped for a wider infusion of new blood to the party’s top ranks ahead of Burma’s upcoming 2015 national polls.
The Nobel laureate called on the nearly 900 delegates to “seize the chance” to re-energize the party, which has suffered from internal dissent and a number of other challenges since its establishment in the aftermath of a 1988 popular uprising which was crushed by the then-ruling military junta.
"I thank the members who struggled hand-in-hand with the NLD for 25 years, and I also welcome our new members," she said.
"A party can be energetic if it's refreshed with new blood all the time."
Younger members had hoped to bring change to the party which has been largely controlled by Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of “NLD Uncles” in their 80s and 90s who helped to create the group a quarter of a century ago.
But reforms went only so deep, as veteran party members were elected to the core Executive Committee of the party, which was more than doubled to 15 members from seven.
Agence France-Presse quoted an NLD youth member who spoke on condition of anonymity as saying that younger constituents of the party were “not completely satisfied” by the outcome of the internal elections.
“We accept their decision and we will support it. But we do want more new blood among the leadership,” the youth member said.
“We want to see people in their 40s and 50s who are educated and have experience in politics being more involved.”
NLD spokesman Han Tha Myint said that the party recognized the need to promote younger activists, and would focus on building up its capacity and recruiting “competent people from outside.”
Observers have questioned whether the 1.3 million member-strong NLD is ready to take on the helm of leadership in Burma.
The organization was unable to operate freely under the junta and lacked a democratic structure. It would inherit a nation in need of desperate reforms to its economy, education system, and health care system.
The question also remains over who would lead the NLD to the polls in 2015. While the hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi handily won re-election as party chief, a clause in Burma’s constitution prevents her from running for president because her sons are foreign nationals.
Reported by Taing Sarada for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.