Interview: ‘When Our Citizens Are Empowered, They Can Protect Their Own Interests’

cambodia-kem-sokha-mu-sochua-may-2017-crop.jpg Mu Sochua (L) and Kem Sokha (R) campaign in Cambodia ahead of commune elections, May 24, 2017.

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) spoke with reporter Vuthy Huot of Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service by telephone on Wednesday to discuss his party’s campaign platform ahead of upcoming local elections on June 4—seen as a bellwether for national elections in 2018.

The opposition leader is in the midst of his third trip through Cambodia since emerging from hiding at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh after receiving a royal pardon in December. Kem Sokha had been given a five-month jail sentence for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser—legal issues he had always maintained were politically motivated.

RFA: After having conducted campaign rallies in a number of provinces and cities over the past five days, do you see the number of CNRP supporters increasing? If so, do you have any supporting evidence?

Kem Sokha: Over the past five days, I met with citizens at several meeting and rally events in up to 12 provinces … Among these 12 provinces, my observation is that, first, the number of our supporters and those in favor of the CNRP’s political platform are increasing. These people are more resolute and firm in their beliefs than ever before … I have witnessed this with my own eyes, because I’m not just sitting around and waiting for reports from party members and provincial leaders. As a leader, I, Kem Sokha, must witness every place on my own.

RFA: During my interview with you in the radio program earlier, you said that during this commune council election—the first in which the CNRP will participate with candidates running in all 1,646 communes nationwide—you expect your party will win up to 60 percent of the seats. How crucial is it for the CNRP to do so?

Kem Sokha: Firstly, it is crucial for the citizens. The citizens understand clearly that good commune leaders will bring them more benefits. So the selection of leaders will affect their livelihoods. For instance, the CNRP will prioritize issuing certificates without discrimination or extra fees and in a timely manner if we win the election … and empower citizens to participate in decision-making prior to making any development … Secondly, it will not only affect the citizens, it affects democracy [in Cambodia] as a whole. Should the CNRP win more communes, our local democracy will become stronger. We will be able to make the foundation of our local democracy stronger, and a country with strong local democracy will have strong national democracy. Thirdly, it is important for the CNRP. If we win more communes at the local level, we will definitely win more seats at the national level ... and have more officials at the district, provincial, and parliamentary levels.

RFA: For this commune election, citizens who spoke with RFA’s Khmer Service always said they must vote for incumbents, because if they don’t, the authorities won’t issue necessary licenses or certificates for them. What do you have to say to these people?

Kem Sokha: This is the reason that citizens need to vote for change. If [incumbents] issue certificates [efficiently], then their constituents should certainly support them again. But if there is any discrimination [in issuing certificates], then citizens must vote for change.

RFA: We’ve noticed that the CPP continues the practice of distributing gifts [to win votes] … How about the CNRP? Will your party have anything to distribute?

Kem Sokha: The citizens now are smarter. They know how to compare and offset—how to judge … when they have been given little, but what has been taken back is more … [Gifts] cannot offset what has been lost or what they need [and don’t get].

RFA: Why do you think it is important for the citizens to join in decision-making from the local level upwards?

Kem Sokha: When our citizens are empowered, they can protect their own interests. When they don’t have power, they lose their interests and cannot protect them. This is a basic concept in a democratic society.

RFA: If a CNRP candidate is elected commune chief and residents want them removed because they cannot properly perform their work, but the party is still in favor of them, who wins—the party or the people?

Kem Sokha: Citizens can also make judgments by scoring the work of CNRP commune chiefs … whether they have properly implemented the platform of the party and whether they respect the will of the citizens. We collect the score each year. If the score is low, we will send our disciplinary committee to evaluate [them] … If the citizens are not satisfied with any individual, the CNRP, which always respects the will of the people, must dare to make changes.

RFA: If the CNRP wins the commune election, to what extent can its commune chiefs carry out development?

Kem Sokha: Firstly, there are things we can do without having to spend money … That is what we can do by empowering the lives of our citizens. Secondly … we can do small things, such as issuing certificates [effectively]. As for major developments inside the communes—if the CNRP wins the national election in 2018, we will allocate U.S. $500,000 from the national budget to each commune in the country, regardless of the chief’s party affiliation, and I believe this will certainly allow us to make substantial developments for the nation and our citizens.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo.

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