Sam Rainsy, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) sat down with reporter Vuthy Huot of Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service at RFA’s headquarters in Washington on Thursday to discuss the changes in his status within the party, and the upcoming local elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018.
While he is the leader of Cambodia’s major opposition party, Sam Rainsy stepped down as the National Assembly’s minority leader, turning those duties over to CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha. Sam Rainsy left Cambodia last year after he was given a two-year prison sentence in a defamation case, leading the CNRP to name Kem Sokha its acting president. Sam Rainsy’s conviction in the defamation case is but one of the court actions taken by Cambodia’s government or the ruling Cambodian People’s party against him. Earlier this year Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities to prevent Sam Rainsy from entering the country.
RFA: Why did you relinquish your title as the minority leader?
Sam Rainsy: I have been stripped off my parliamentary immunity and banned from entering the country. That has prompted me to relinquish my minority leader position to my deputy to ensure that our work continues smoothly. I’m pleased that Kem Sokha is now resuming my position.
RFA: When will there be real change in Cambodia?
SR: Change is imminent. Dictatorship will be uprooted.
RFA: Why are you so sure?
Sam Rainsy: There are three main factors that I trust will be the key contributors to change: First, there is the power of people, especially young people, who are longing for change. Youths are very eager to change the current regime for the betterment, and people are more informed these days. Technology allows Cambodians to better understand how bad the current government is. Second, there is strong sign of unity of parties outside of the government. The CNRP represents other political parties’ challenge the ruling party. Third, now there is a new and credible national election committee. With the new National Election Committee, the ruling party can no longer rig the elections, so we are very optimistic that we will win the next elections.
RFA: How optimistic are you regarding the upcoming elections?
Sam Rainsy: As long as there are free and fair elections we are going to win. Six months from now there will be a commune election. We are very optimistic that the CNRP will win a landslide victory due to the fact that the CNRP has a stronger base of grassroots support.
RFA: What will the CNRP do if it wins the elections?
Sam Rainsy: We will conduct reforms. We will return Cambodia to Cambodians. Cambodia has been abducted by the ruling party. We have to return it to the people. Looted state properties will have to be returned to the state. Land and properties illegally stolen from the people by the ruling party will have to be returned to the people.
RFA: More than 40 political parties have now registered to compete in the next elections. Do you see this as a challenge?
Sam Rainsy: That’s part of the ruling party’s strategy. The CPP is trying to break the CNRP into pieces, but it will not prevail, for we are strong and very united. They employ a tactic of creating more, smaller political parties to create confusion among voters. But that doesn’t work because voters now know the trick.
RFA: How can you ensure that electoral irregularities are minimized?
Sam Rainsy: Japan and European Community have provided the new NEC with financial and technical assistance. I have faith in their credibility in helping hold the NEC accountable. The previous irregularities including more than one million missing voters has been addressed through the new voter registration mechanism. The ruling party will not be able to use the “ghost voters” to rig the elections again.
RFA: At the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned Kem Sokha of failing to appear in one of the cases related to the government’s probe into his alleged affair with a young hair dresser. Commune chief Seang Chet was also pardoned in a case related to the investigation. Promises have been made, by ruling party officials, regarding the release of the jailed NGOs staffers including the NEC’s deputy by the end of this month. Do you thing such promise will be honored?
Sam Rainsy: I’m hopeful that those people will be released. The main purpose of the ruling party in this was to persecute Kem Sokha. Those people just happened to be victims. The political situation has evolved, and now Kem Sokha is released. It is not logical to continue detaining these people.
RFA: Are you scared to return to Cambodia? Do you think your decision to go into self-imposed exile is justified?
Sam Rainsy: I’m not scared to return to Cambodia at all. Immediately after I finished my visit to South Korea I planned to return to Cambodia. However, on the date I was supposed to arrive in the country, I was stripped off my parliamentary immunity. An arrest warrant was then issued against me. My colleagues asked me to not return to Cambodia to avoid clashes. The ruling party had set up their mobs to attack my supporters, so I have made the right decision to rescue the country from conflicts.