Cambodia has been in the grips of a political crisis for months as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has pursued an investigation into an alleged affair between Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy leader Kem Sokha and a young hairdresser. The investigation has led to the arrest of four human rights workers and an election commission official who are accused of bribery or accessory to bribery charges for attempting to keep the woman quiet, and it has also seen heavily-armed police attempt to arrest Kem Sokha at the CNRP’s headquarters.
While that is the most high-profile case, Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have also pursued other cases against opposition lawmakers. Opposition party Senator Um Sam An was charged with two criminal offenses over his accusations that the government conceded land to Vietnam along its border. The government is also holding more than two-dozen other opposition party officials on various charges, including Senator Hong Sok Hour and CNRP media director Meach Sovannara.
Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile following his removal from parliament in November 2015 by the CPP because of a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case. Most analysts say the campaign against the CNRP is designed to intimidate and weaken the party before elections due in 2017and 2018. In a live interview on June 15 in the RFA studio in Washington, DC. Sam Rainsy discussed the situation in Cambodia with RFA Khmer Service journalist Vuthy Huot.
RFA: The situation in these past few days seemed to hold some positive signs for the CNRP. The international community, including the U.N., European Union and the United States, seemed to back the CNRP. How much of this is the result of the diplomatic efforts by you and the CNRP?
Sam Rainsy: People are finally getting a clear understanding of the political situation in Cambodia. The world has learnt that the situation in Cambodia has reached a most dangerous stage due to the strategy of the dictatorship of Cambodia.
The government used intimidation, threats, violence and the court system, under the control of the CPP, to put pressure on CNRP members or on the members of the civil society who were just speaking the truth and who protected and provided justice to the victims, so it is not hard for the world to see it.
RFA: I can understand how international recognition is helpful and it puts pressure on Cambodia’s rulers, but I’m not sure how much that moves Prime Minister Hun Sen. He recently said discussions about the detention of CNRP officials and civil society workers is off limits in any negotiations to end the crisis. What does this mean for “the culture of dialog?”
Sam Rainsy: I want to emphasize that I always value and hail the culture of dialogue. The culture of dialogue is not just between two individuals or two parties, but it is for all parties so the Khmer people of all political stripes can move into the future.
That said, the culture of dialogue in Cambodia is still very new and there are difficulties, but we have to have trust that the culture of dialogue will remain alive and replace the culture of violence. We have experienced only the culture of violence, the culture of destroying each other. We should give up this culture and grasp the culture of dialogue so that the Khmer people can experience peace, to ensure our country’s stability and real democracy.
RFA: From the outside, Cambodia looks like it’s in trouble?
Sam Rainsy: Since the coup d’ etat in 1997, Cambodia’s crisis is currently at a stage that could lead the country over the edge to disaster if we do not solve it peacefully. The CNRP is ready to start discussions with mutual respect. We did not put conditions regarding date, time, venue, or topic on the discussion. The topic we need to select is the one that is relevant and reflects the current tense situation. Now let’s ask the people, what are their biggest concerns and sufferings? We have to put these issues on the table for discussion.
RFA: So, will you drop the insistence on conditions before there is negotiation?
Sam Rainsy: There are no longer any conditions. Everything has to have a starting point, but it has to lead to topics that reflect the people’s concerns.
RFA: Hun Sen wants the CNRP to stop boycotting the national assembly. Do you plan on returning to the parliament any time soon?
Sam Rainsy: The CNRP is not quarreling, but is a victim of successive problems created by those who keep drumming up allegations and accusations against the CNRP. Before returning to the National Assembly, we want to see lawmakers’ immunity fully respected and protected as it is laid out in the constitution.
Currently, the national assembly is not working properly because it is now going back to the situation before the Paris Peace Accords. When there was only one dominant party. It’s even worse than that, because it is only one man who causes all the troubles on his own free will.
We are not going to join this game. We want to have a real multi-party government with democratic principles. We want the situation to go back to normal as it was about six months or a year ago before we return to our National Assembly duty.
RFA: Does that mean you want to have a negotiation process in place before the CNRP returns to parliament?
Sam Rainsy: Per our experience, unless there is a package solution we must not accept partial or temporary solutions. They release some people and later on, they arrest this or that person…We need an official declaration of a principle that stops using the court system to put pressure on people and creates an intimidating environment that would affect the upcoming election process.
RFA: Did the culture of dialog lead you to write a letter regarding the published allegations on Hun Sen — Facebook posts saying one of his sons is the child of his wife and a former Vietnamese leader? Have you received any response from the CPP or from the prime minister regarding your letter?
Sam Rainsy: I regret and I denounced the allegations and accusations against Mr. Kem Sokha who is deputy head and currently acting head of CNRP. Because those allegations and accusations are a personal issue that is of no use. It’s a petty thing that is just diverting people’s attention from the vital issues of the nation.
Since I feel that way about him, I also feel regret and denounce those who create the same problem for others. That is why I wrote that letter expressing regret regarding the accusation against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
RFA: Have you gotten a response?
Sam Rainsy: I did not write the letter because I expected a response. I wrote it to affirm the morality of the CNRP, its leaders and its members, who have maintained a noble dignity. We did not make any allegations and accusations on a personal issue that would lead to humiliation and defamation against others, stain their dignity or cause them pain.
RFA: But have you received any response?
Sam Rainsy: I am now in Washington D.C., and I have not received any information on the response from Mr. Hun Sen, yet.
RFA: Since the scandal issue broke, the CNRP has declared that it will stay silent, not quarrel or respond. That all its efforts and focus is on preparing for the upcoming commune elections. But this is the state of play: The CNRP leader is still in exile; the acting head is in self-detention within the party’s headquarters; and it looks like all CNRP members, lawmakers, and supporters in the country have gathered around the headquarters in Phnom Penh.
It looks like the focus on the election has been postponed. How you are going to deal with the situation?
Sam Rainsy: The situation is not at a standstill, but actually moving forward with positive prospects for the CNRP. We can see, at the grassroots level in 25 provinces and cities across the country, including the capital city of Phnom Penh, that the threats and intimidation are not scaring anyone off. Instead people are stronger and more supportive of the CNRP.
They continue encouraging CNRP leaders by coming to the party headquarters with tens of thousands of petitions and staying for days regardless of all the difficulties. People inside and outside the country have provided financial support to buy food and water, while others cook meals for those who stay at the party headquarters. It is a good sign for the CNRP as well as for its plan for the upcoming elections in 2017. And those who have caused the problems in the hope to weakening the CNRP, we have proved them wrong. We have become stronger than ever.
RFA: When will you return to Cambodia?
Sam Rainsy: I will go back before the election date. Even if for just a short period of time prior the election. Even a short stay would be sufficient. In 2013, they created so many troubles for me. I returned to Cambodia less than 2-3 weeks before the last election date and it was enough time. There were people showing their strong support before my return. This time, the people’s will and support are even stronger than before, and we will stick to our vital goal that is to have peaceful change on the path of democracy in the country.
Translated by Yanny Hin.