Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile following his removal from parliament in November 2015 by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) because of a warrant issued for his arrest in a seven-year-old defamation case. Since that time the government of Hun Sen has taken increasingly tough measures against Sam Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), including arrests of sitting lawmakers and supporters. Most analysts say the campaign against the CNRP is designed to intimidate and weaken the party before elections due in 2017and 2018. Sam Rainsy held a telephone interview from his exile home in France with Vuthy Huot of RFA's Khmer Service and also took questions from listeners on the political conflict and a range of issues confronting Cambodia today.
RFA: Will the CNRP maintain its recent stance of remaining quiet about personal attacks while focusing on important national issues, or will it return to an approach of leading demonstrations to get citizens including the youth involved on issues such as the border, deforestation and illegal logging, and corruption?
Sam Rainsy: We will continue to maintain our stance of being quiet, not answering, and not arguing. We will not give importance to personal and individual issues. But we will continue to focus on the important and vital issues of the country, such as territory, land, land concessions that have seen our country divided into pieces for foreign and private investment companies for 99 years. These are the most vital issues that have a serious impact on our country’s destiny, on the daily life of people who lack jobs or work for very low income, Khmer farmers who lose their income every year as their livelihoods decrease, and those who have to leave home and family and immigrate to other countries looking for jobs. These are the issues that we will definitely be focusing on.
RFA: Does this means that CNRP officials and members of parliament may start to being active in protests again, leading youth and activists on border demarcation issues?
Sam Rainsy: We will not fall into their [the CPP's] trap. They wanted to divert our attention from national issues, the important ones that I mentioned, because they do not know how to deal with or do not want to or cannot deal with them. They have ties with invasive foreigners. They have been corrupt to the bone. They have sold the country’s property as if it was their own. They’ve been involved with bad investment companies that harm the Cambodian people. They will not solve these problems. To divert our attention, they have created small, unimportant and personal issues, so we will not fall for their tricks. We have to continue to take action to find solutions to these vital issues for our country and our people and the younger generations.
RFA: Deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha has received a summons to testify in court, although the party is refusing to cooperate, citing his parliamentary immunity. Now authorities are threatening arrests. If there are arrests and people are sent to prison, what will you do?
Sam Rainsy: First, we are focusing on issues of national interest. Then, we will look into personal and individual issues, which we have to somehow find some solutions for ourselves. The party will help find some solutions, and each organization will have to take some measures. But we should not let these individual issues be used in trade-offs. To have our nation survive, there need to be sacrifices. If they take us as hostages—arresting 10 or 100, or put hundreds or tens of thousands of us into jail, so be it. Let those culprits who committed such bad deeds harming people and violating human rights show their hand. People will hate them more than ever, and history will denounce them more than before. We should not trade an individual matter in a deal for a national matter. We as individuals will die one day, but our nation must not die.
RFA: Do you regret that you did not return to Cambodia last year and do you have plans to return?
Sam Rainsy: Whether I return or not is not important. We know what the CPP wants and what the CNRP wants. First, the CPP. They know that the Cambodian people have suffered and are hurt and want to change the leader of the country. Last election, we know that there was not a fair election, thus we led the demonstration for a just election and National Election Commission reform. Then, we won the election. Now the CPP knows that if there is a fair and just election again, they will lose again, and they have created tension, threats, and intimidation. Whether I return any time now or in the future, I believe there won’t be any difference at all. Because the CPP has its own goals. With the problems they have been creating so far, we must know what they want. Nobody knows better than the CPP itself that the Cambodian people hate them, that they are frustrated; they want change. The actions of current government leaders have been viewed as getting worse and worse: problems in the country, problems of people’s living conditions, corruption and injustice in society. I do not need to mention that, but the Cambodian people are hurting badly and very concerned about the destiny of our country and our children. So no one wants the current ruling leaders to continue leading the country in their way any longer.
Thus, the CPP clearly knows that if there is an election that is organized by the new NEC with the CNRP and includes civil society representatives, it can no longer steal votes. They agreed to have an election, but it was held under their supervision and order, and they could steal the votes as they wish, and they always won. But for the 2017 and 2018 elections, the CNRP negotiated and held demonstrations, and we pushed our demand that if there were no restructuring – a new NEC – we would not join the national assembly meetings. Then, after the new NEC was set-up we had achieved our goal. So in the upcoming elections, the CPP will definitely lose the vote. That’s why they are very afraid, very frightened, and they have to create problems, create incidents – do whatever to derail the smooth process of the elections, including unrest, violence, threats to intimidate the Khmer people, so they dare not express their ideas, their opinions, their will. Because if they can express their own will, then the CPP will lose. So it must be clearly understood that that is why they created these problems.
As for the CNRP, our advantages are completely different from those of the CPP. We want to have elections, and we want the election process to go smoothly and peacefully with respect for the law, and with the people having no fear, so they can vote freely according to their own will. With such election, we will win. When we win, we must reorganize our country and that is our will to rescue our country, rescue our nation. So that is why the ruling party has had to create these problems, harming civil society, NGOs and the opposition party. By doing that, they have been harming the entire Khmer people. And that has been clearly visible to the public. So, we clearly understand that we must not give them any opportunity to cause us any more problems. We have to be calm, cool and collected so we can win.
RFA: Do you regret not coming back to Cambodia?
Sam Rainsy: I do not believe at all in a scenario in which if I return, the situation will be eased, the people will be happy, no one will be arrested or jailed, and the worst case is only I, Sam Rainsy, will be arrested and no one else will be arrested. The CPP must create stories to arrest me, then arrest others successively to set up a fearful atmosphere to obstruct the process of the elections. We must have our own strategy. We have to weigh between the pros and cons before we proceed to take any steps. I do not want to give any pretext for the CPP to make me regret returning. Why? Because I got news that the CPP had set up a story to attack and commit political violence on CNRP supporters who planned to welcome me at the airport. It is the same kind of incident they set up at Naga bridge near Freedom Park. They came and attacked us, and since the courts are in their grip, they accused us as the attackers instead. So I did not see any benefit from returning home at that time at all, only losses. And I myself would become a hostage. I am the party leader. If we compare the CNRP to a military organization, if they took the head of the army as hostage, what would happen to the rest of the army? Our army would be in disarray, discouraged, and they [CPP] would twist the story from a national matter to a personal one.
RFA: What about Kem Sokha? If there is an arrest threat, do you support him remaining in the country or leaving to avoid arrest?
Sam Rainsy: That depends on the situation, the discussion and the individual’s consciousness, and I have not discussed that point with Kem Sokha yet. I cannot revealing anything at this time because the situation is developing from one day to the next or even from one hour to the next. We cannot estimate what we must do for the time being.
RFA: The CNRP is facing the likely situation of having no leaders with you in exile and the deputy head still facing a court summons and arrest if he does not show up before the court. Who will lead the party if such a situation occurs within a week or so?
Sam Rainsy: My idea is different from that of the the current leader of the country, who thinks that only he or his family is able to lead the country. I think otherwise – that there are many people, young people, who are capable of leading the country. So I am not concerned. We believe that there will be many people out there who will come out soon and lead the country, and save it from danger.
RFA: People from within the CNRP?
Sam Rainsy: From within the CNRP! The CNRP is not only a party. No Khmer wants to see our nation die; they want to see our nation survive. If we want our nation to survive, we have to unite to rescue our nation. So I believe the CNRP does not have only Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. The CNRP, CNRP people, the CNRP's stance is in the hearts of millions of Khmer people.
RFA: Will the arrest of NEC Deputy Secretary Ny Chakriya affect the fair and neutral workings of the NEC?
Sam Rainsy: This is a severe case. Ny Chakriya is from civil society and works with the NEC, so that shows that the actions of the current ruling leaders of the country indicate they are no longer paying any heed. They knew that NGOs are the neutral, independent groups that work to safeguard human rights and democracy in Cambodia. That is civil society’s duty and mandate. If they now arrest people from civil society, people can see clearly that Cambodia is now in a critical situation and is no longer a constitutional and democratic state, but under an emergency state as in the staging of a coup d’etat. No respect for law. No respect for parliamentary immunity. They can arrest anyone anytime as they wish.
RFA: Did you foresee this grave situation in July 2014 when the CNRP and the CPP agreed to work together?
Sam Rainsy: At that time our goal was to have the NEC reformed, and we achieved it. Our priority is to have a new NEC and a just and fair election. Now what we must do is to ensure a smooth and fair election. This is our present priority.
RFA: You have hinted that there could be intervention from the international community. How would that happen?
Sam Rainsy: There are many measures. What is the most important is legitimacy. So far, the CPP has tried to make itself out to be a legitimate leader. Now the people’s vote has still been stolen. The CPP’s move in the last few months shows that the party will continue to steal the people’s vote, and the international community has seen that. Soon the CPP will lose its legitimacy in leading the country and will lose everything. I believe that that the CPP can be strong for now, but soon it will realize that it has lost its legitimacy, then it will rethink things. The international community has many measures to show how it can take away legitimacy from the CPP.
RFA: During a recent meeting with a high-ranking government official, EU representative Ugo Astuto raised deep concerns about the independence of Cambodian courts and called for the release of opposition party officials, human right activists and NEC officials. The Cambodian official said the government does not harbor ill intentions against or is using the court against the CNRP, but merely implementing Cambodia’s rule of law. What is your reaction to these comments?
Sam Rainsy: That is the way of communist groups. They never admit that they violate human rights. And the current government is copying the communist method of the Khmer Rouge regime.
RFA: Before the leaking of news about Kem Sokha's alleged mistress, there was a suggestion from Hun Sen to eliminate you from the CNRP and have Kem Sokha take over as CNRP leader. When Kem Sokha refused to do that, the leak about his alleged affair came about. Did you hear about it while you were in in exile?
Sam Rainsy: I have no doubt and am not surprised, because I knew that the other side wants the CNRP to split up. It also happened to me. Hun Sen used to suggest that I kick Kem Sokha out of the CNRP, but I refused to do so. So it is the same strategy. There were surely moves against me. But we will not split up, because we want to unite for the benefit of the country and the people.The CNRP is moving forward, not turning back. The CNRP will never break up, but will be more closely united than ever.
RFA: Is there any possibility of you returning to Cambodia before the election?
Sam Rainsy: Our strategy will be flexible and can be changed, but we cannot reveal that, because our opponents would know about it. But I believe and I will find a way to be present in Cambodia before the upcoming election.
RFA: Do you think the CNRP will win more seats than in the last election or just maintain its current number?
Sam Rainsy: It depends on the election process. If the election is just and fair, the CNRP, and that means the Cambodian people, will win. I believe that as long as the CNRP remains firm in our stance to stand together on our principles without being intimidated, bought or split, the Cambodian people will win.
Translated by Yanny Hin.