Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

IN SIGHT: Profile in Political Courage

Sam Rainsy, president of the Khmer Nation Party,
is carried away after a 30 March 1997 grenade attack
outside the National Assembly building.

Rainsy touring a flooded Cambodian
district several years ago. — GEORGE MCLEOD

In his turbulent political career, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has endured assassination attempts and death threats and has seen friends and colleagues killed

Source: http://www.bangkokpost.net/260807_Perspective/26Aug2007_pers04.php

From a crumbling office in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy put on a brave face when asked about his party's future. "We have doubled the votes we have previously collected," he said, referring to Cambodia's recent commune elections.

But in Cambodia's fragile democracy, few believe that Rainsy will ever win power, regardless of the popular vote. Independent observers say the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is tightening its grip in the country, allegedly through violence and intimidation.

In his turbulent political career, Rainsy has endured assassination attempts, death threats and has seen friends and colleagues killed.

Rainsy was also convicted of defamation in 2005 for accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of instigating violent attacks on his supporters. He returned in 2006 from self-imposed exile and is now guarded in his criticisms of the government. "My return was a result of international pressure. The CPP has changed its strategy; it relies less on violence but more on tricks, but the result is the same," he said in an interview in Phnom Penh. With elections scheduled for next year, Rainsy warns that the CPP's "tricks" may prevent a fair ballot.

Rainsy rose to prominence as finance minister after Cambodia's first democratic elections in 1993. Then a member of the royalist FUNCINPEC Party, he introduced sweeping reforms to fight corruption and introduce a modern taxation and procurement system.

The reforms ruffled the feathers of the ruling CPP, and members of FUNCINPEC, and he was expelled from his position in 1994. Refusing to abandon politics, Rainsy formed his own party, the Khmer Nation Party, later renamed the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

Since then, the party has seen its support grow, but has endured threats and often violent attacks, say independent observers.

Human Rights Watch's Brad Adams said that numerous human rights violations against opposition supporters have been documented since 1993.

"Since (political) pluralism was brought in by the UN, hundreds of opposition party members and activists have been killed and not one person has been brought to justice for any of those killings," he said from London. "What you have in Cambodia is a one-party quasi-dictatorship," he said.

The first major attack on Rainsy happened in 1997 at a workers rally in Phnom Penh. At 8:20 a.m. on March 30, four grenades were lobbed into the crowd, apparently aimed at Rainsy. Rainsy was thrown to the ground by his bodyguards, one of whom was killed by the blasts. According to Amnesty International, a total of 19 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the blasts.

An Amnesty International report on the attack said that police at the scene did not help the wounded, and that two people who were alive in the immediate aftermath were left out in the sun, without help, and later died at the scene.

In July of the same year, Cambodia erupted in near civil war as the CPP and FUNCINPEC fought pitched battles throughout the country, resulting in a CPP victory.

Rainsy fled Cambodia, and many of his supporters went into hiding. Armed looters broke into the SRP headquarters and into Rainsy's house, gutting the buildings. He returned to a nearly shattered party - many SRP activists dead or having fled as refugees.

With elections scheduled for July 1998, Rainsy rapidly reorganised the party, mounting an effective campaign based on fighting corruption, alleviating poverty and defending workers' rights. Despite flaws in the voting process, the SRP secured 15 parliamentary seats. Rainsy also supported the emergence of Cambodia's first independent trade union, the Free Trade Union of Cambodia. The country's booming garment industry had attracted hoardes of what Rainsy calls "cowboy capitalists," who often profited from exploitative sweatshop labour. The union's president Chea Vichea was killed in 2004 - many believe the assassination was ordered by bodyguards of a senior government official.

Since Rainsy's return from exile, he has tirelessly worked to attract voters in the impoverished country. Campaigning in a rural country with poor infrastructure and rampant illiteracy carries unique challenges. Rainsy has to visit voters face to face, and nearly every day, he travels in a small convoy on Cambodia's dirt roads speaking to the masses.

It comes down to corruption

Rainsy's message is simple: corruption and mismanagement are holding back Cambodia - it is time for a change.

"There are two main issues: one is bad governance... The second is unemployment and poverty. Most of these problems come down to corruption," he said in Phnom Penh.

The international corruption watchdog Transparency International rates Cambodia near the bottom of its international index at 153 out of 163. Thailand is rated near the middle at 63.

Much of Cambodia's corruption involves alleged embezzlement of the more than $600 million in foreign aid the Cambodian government receives each year.

"(The donor money) has gone into the pockets of corrupt government officials," says Rainsy. "Cambodia is the bad conscious of the world, and the international community has spent a lot of money relieving its conscience," he said.

The depth of Cambodia's corruption was illustrated in June when the UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness produced a report documenting illegal logging in Cambodia. Senior government figures close to the prime minister were identified as being behind multi-million dollar illegal logging syndicates. The report entitled Cambodia's Family Trees was banned by the Cambodian government and copies were seized.

Global Witness' Eleanor Nichol said the government also threatened its staff and prohibited them from visiting Cambodia. She said that the prime minister's brother Hun Neng was quoted saying he would "break the heads of any Global Witness official travelling to Cambodia."

"The issuing of death threats by a senior Cambodian official is absolutely unacceptable from any perspective," she said from London. Nichol believes that the government's reaction is part of a broader problem of authoritarianism in Cambodia. "Over the past 10 years we have seen a steady consolidation of power in the hands of an elite few, which has attracted remarkably little attention in the international community," she said.

Nichol added that Cambodia's opposition has faced immense challenges. "The space for the (Cambodian) opposition is steadily declining... (the opposition) is doing the best they can under the circumstances."

However, prominent author and expert on Cambodia objects to what he has called anti-Vietnamese tendencies within the Sam Rainsy Party.

"When speaking in Khmer (Rainsy's) remarks about [the] Vietnamese are racist," he wrote in an emailed response.

"And during the election campaign in 1993 one speech was so bad the UN ... would not let it be broadcast, even though they were on (Rainsy's) side... That is, they hoped FUNCINPEC, not CPP, would win," he wrote. Vickery's new book Cambodia: A Political Survey, argues that western governments and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch are driven by a Cold War-rooted prejudice against the Cambodian People's Party. The CPP was installed by the Vietnamese, and was seen throughout the 1980s as a pro-Hanoi puppet regime. Rainsy maintains that his remarks about Viet Nam address border-encroachment issues, and do not contain racist undertones.

Contact: georgemcleod@gmail.com


Sam Rainsy was born in 1949 in Phnom Penh.

He moved to France in 1965, where he later ran a successful accounting firm.

Rainsy was active in opposing the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which lasted from 1979-1993. In 1989, he became the Royalist FUNCINPEC Party's European Representative.

After Cambodia's first democratic elections in 1993, Rainsy became Finance Minister, but was expelled from his position, and from the FUNCINPEC Party in 1994.

In 1995, Rainsy formed the Khmer Nation Party, later renamed the Sam Rainsy Party.

Rainsy has fled Cambodia twice for political reasons: once in 1997 and again in 2005.

He is married to Samura Tuolong, who is an elected Member of Parliament.

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