The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been under a lot of pressure recently, with party leader Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile and acting leader Kem Sokha laying low to avoid arrest. Khmer Times’ Alan Parkhouse spoke to Son Chhay, one of the party’s most senior figures, on the CNRP’s chances in the next election, the current political atmosphere and what they would do if they come to power.
KT: What is your take on the current state of politics in Cambodia?
Son Chhay: It’s not very good, but if you compare it to 1997, we had a military coup – I think they have to recognize it was a coup – and compared to 1997, the situation is not that bad. I think we still have room to grow, to put the situation back in a better kind of way so that we can all go back to work. So there is a hope that we can find a way to compromise and get the situation back to normal.
KT: Do you think the problems will be solved by dialogue, and is that dialogue likely to happen?
Son Chhay: This is the issue. This is the political issue that the CNRP have decided. I hope that the CPP would make the commitment to promote a culture of dialogue more seriously. We have been through many difficult and troubled times where confrontation and violence did not solve any problems. It only gets Cambodia into the situation that the people have suffered greatly and we have seen a lot of destruction to our nation, so I think that we are committed to dialogue and we continue to be patient and hope that there will be a time soon that we can talk to each other.
KT: If there is a dialogue between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), what points would you like to see addressed in that dialogue?
Son Chhay: We have to find ways to stop the problem. We know there was a problem that the opposition party had encountered through an unjust way of intimidation, by using the courts, by using all kinds of tools that the government has to threaten our existence. So we have to be able to work and we have to be able to trust each other. We must work in an environment that we can live peacefully together, even though [the question is] who is going to be in power? So it’s not easy and Cambodia has never been able to have this privilege of having a changing of the government or the system and still be able to live side by side, peacefully together. I hope that by being more patient, that by continuing to commit ourselves to peaceful negotiations and a peaceful way of solving the problems, I think we will achieve this objective.
KT: In the event that Sam Rainsy cannot return and if Kem Sokha is jailed or unable to run, who would lead the CNRP into the next election?
Son Chhay: The CNRP, which was formed from the Sam Rainsy Party, has a unique way of operating. We have our senior party members who tend to have a very independent mind and an independent way of doing the party’s job without relying on direction or guidelines from the top leader. So we are used to having a leader living in exile many times. I myself, when we were still with the Sam Rainsy Party, I would always be the party whip so I have been able to nominate all the party’s members of parliament with very little guidance from Mr. Rainsy. So I think we will have no need to officially appoint any new leader because we still communicate with him through video conference, through Skype and all this stuff.
So this is not something that is really stopping us from being involved in our party activities, but it would be better if he was around. So I think the question of appointing another person to lead the party is not on our agenda.
KT: How do you see your party’s prospects in the commune and national elections?
Son Chhay: I think we are very hopeful. From the 2013 result we can see that at least half of the population is supporting our party for the first time. So we hope that will reflect in the results of the commune election and with a very similar result in the 2018 national election. That’s why we are working very hard even though we have some problems now where Mr. Kem Sokha is not able to function, do his duty in meeting the public or his supporters. We as parliamentarians now have to take over some of the activities. We will help the people register to vote and also with getting the identification card and so on. So we are hopeful that not half of the community will be on our side, or at least very close to that amount will be the result of the coming election.
KT: If your party does win the next election, do you think the CPP will relinquish power?
Son Chhay: There has not been any evidence in our party’s history that a change of government will come smoothly, peacefully. That’s why we have to work doubly hard to create this new environment, especially for myself. I have suffered under the Khmer Rouge, and I blamed the leader of the country, and I committed myself in my life under the Khmer Rouge to not support any individual. I hope I can contribute something to help create a system, a governing system, that will not permit any leader to destroy his own people and country easily. There will have to be a system to protect the people and also to maintain peace in the country for a long period of time and not to rely on any individual. We need this to keep the country in peace, so I’m more looking at having a system than an individual leader. So by having shown we are not working through violence, and we are not prepared to take up arms to overthrow anyone, we hope that the ruling party would understand this and would work with us so we can have the finest system that we have had in our Cambodian history.
KT: Do you think the country will descend into the kind of chaos the ruling party continually warns its citizens about?
Son Chhay: I think in politics you have different ways of getting support – sometimes you create fear. You understand that in Australia John Howard has done that very well. He saw an opportunity when 9/11 happened in the United States to present himself to the public – he was the only one to prevent any disaster happening in Australia. I personally don’t like to see any political party in this country using any kind of message – a harmful message – even though it benefits the party. For example, the border issue. I remember when there were all these things, you go to the border, you bring the people there. I used to go to the border, but the way I did it was through great awareness, and trying to bring it to the government’s attention. The border issue must be transparent – we are the citizens of the country – and we ought to have the right to see how the deal was made, how we’re going to measure the border and so on. But not to use it as a political game, to stir up trouble, because in Cambodia’s past the border issue was what caused a lot of Cambodia’s destruction. But we have to look at a less sensitive issue, and the CNRP has done very well without having to go to the border issue, without going to the Vietnamese, we can go to salaries, minimum wages, for example, we can look at the creation of jobs for a lot of our young people. We can go to the health sector, we can go to the education sector. A lot of policy needs to be drawn out and defined so the people can take more interest in the party’s political platform, then go to another issue that could cause not just division among our nation, but it could cause trouble with our neighbor.
Because Cambodia is Cambodia, you know, we live in this part of the world. You cannot take Cambodia anywhere else! We have to deal with Vietnam, we have to deal with Thailand. All this history is there, so we have to be realistic, we have the policy of living friendly with our neighbor, and we have to have a very good foreign policy. Because as a small nation you cannot take up arms to fight with Vietnam or to fight with the Thais on the border issues. But we have a more effective foreign policy to deal with these kinds of issues. But we do not use it for political gain. So we’re hoping to smooth out our differences with the CPP.
KT: Your party is an alliance of a number of parties. Are there a lot of differing opinions and ideologies within your party?
Son Chhay: Of course we are the liberal people, we all have a brain and we don’t wait for one person to tell us what to do. Also, the CNRP is a joining of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party. By having the two parties merge together with a common effort to succeed in winning the election doesn’t mean that everyone has the same ideas, or the same thinking. We have to learn how to sort out the differences and come up with a common ideology as much as we could so we are able to win the election for the first time in 35 years so that the democratic principle can be implanted or implemented. We also hope that by changing from one party to the other it will help strengthen the country and the institutions.
KT: In your opinion, what are the most disappointing things about Cambodia today – corruption, human rights, the lack of opportunities for young people etc?
Son Chhay: We are supposed to strengthen our institutions, we are supposed to deliver good services to our people, we are supposed to have a government that would care for their own country, but we are too busy fighting against each other, among the parties. In other countries the issue of competition between the parties only occurs during an election. After that they will work on building up the country, they will work on improving the system so that people can receive good services and so on. Here there is fighting between the parties – sometimes it is very serious, like I mention in 1997 we were using arms and shooting and killing each other. After that we only heard about court cases – someone will be sentenced to so many years, and I listen to the prime minister’s speeches which most of the time are about other parties.
He should talk more about what are the ways that we can improve our agriculture production, how we can cut down corruption, because corruption is terribly bad in this country – it’s really bad – and the way that the government appoints brothers and sisters or cousins. The ministers are allowed to appoint all their relatives into positions, and a lot of positions are for sale in this country. It only helps to create injustices in society. We want a peaceful Cambodia. There is no peace without justice. You cannot have peace by shutting up everyone and shutting them down and throwing them in jail or shooting them and kill a few of them so they will be scared to express themselves against corruption, against the government, against deforestation, against all this bad behavior by the government. You call that peace? It’s terrible. So it’s important that we be able to reduce the tension between parties and move on and look at what each party, each government, can do, because we are coming out of the terror of war. One third of our population was killed, 80 percent of our country was destroyed.
Why are we still continuing to fool around like a child? We should be grown ups, and since 1993 and the UN election, and up to now – we are 25 years now, that’s a full grown adult. We should be able to live in a society independently, to think and do things more responsibly, so I’d like to have Cambodia as a society be able to live like an adult.
KT: If your party wins the national election and runs the country, what changes would be made and what would the priorities be?
Son Chhay: I think the checks and balances would be put in place and we would make sure some important institutions such as the military have to be a national army and would not be a party’s armed forces. The court system would have to be independent and do their jobs to provide social justice and be fair, and the wealth distribution must be more appropriate. We have a society that has seven percent growth, but most of that, about 80 percent, will go to about three percent of the population. That is not fair. About 90 percent are getting only about 20 percent and live in poverty and have been exploited by the great and the powerful. And the land that belonged to them from their ancestors has been taken away by companies. That is unfair. We have to change all of that, to make sure there will be a social security system in place to ensure that who has made a lot of money would be able to contribute to society through a proper tax. And the poor will have at least the opportunity to be educated.
You know, I went to Australia and I so admired the Australian system that gives the people the opportunity to be educated, and I was so unhappy when I returned from Australia. When I went to a restaurant and I would talk to the people serving me about where they were from and what their background was and many were saying to me that they were doing alright at school and they wanted to continue their education, but their families were so poor so they lost their opportunities. So I very much want to see equal opportunities or at least some opportunities for the Cambodian people so they can start their education, and to ensure they can go to school there should be a government fund that can provide them a cheap loan like we did in Australia. We have to give them a chance. Any government must provide people with hope.
KT: If your party does win the election and comes to power, would you make any changes to the relationship with Vietnam?
Son Chhay: Vietnam is the country that is kind of difficult in Cambodian minds. This is the thing – we have to change our people’s mindset about Vietnam. Of course, we have bad history – we still have Khmer Krom still suffering under Vietnam’s communists. We have to learn to live with it, but not learn to be the slave of Vietnam, not learn to live as the little satellite of Vietnam but to live as a country independent and with sovereignty. To gain Vietnam’s respect we have to respect ourselves. I have been telling our people ‘you are always pointing at Vietnam for taking our land or trying to control us, but we never point the finger at ourselves’. Why is Vietnam able to do all these things to us? This is a question we should ask ourselves, so instead of blaming Vietnam we have to work harder as a nation, to be united, we have to be more capable as a nation to protect our rights, to protect our independence.
I believe that in today’s world you don’t have to have a nuclear weapon to gain respect from any country. It’s important to have a lot of good examples from small nations to work to improve the quality of the people and to have effective policy so that no matter how big a country is, you can stand face to face with them on equal terms. So I think we should put less blame on Vietnam and put more blame on ourselves and see if we can fix our behavior and improve our ability to deal with the situation with Vietnam more appropriately.
You attended two Australian universities. What were the most important lessons from that education you bought back to Cambodia?
Son Chhay: The quality of education is good. You had to work hard – you cannot cheat! You had to work hard to get your degree, but while doing my education I observed the Australian political system. That’s why all my life, since I started in 1993 as a newly elected MP, I was trying to promote democracy. I was trying to debate, sometimes strongly and maybe some didn’t like me – they say I’m more Western in the way I questioned the minister or questioned the government members in the parliament – but I was trying to strengthen our national institution. I strongly believe that if Cambodia were to be a nation, a peaceful nation for a long, long time, Cambodia has to adopt democratic pluralism. We need to have strong institutions in place. We should not rely on powerful individuals.
In Australia you have so many governments in and out, but the system is so good that whoever is going to run the country cannot kill people like Pol Pot. Whoever is going to run the country cannot control the judges, control the courts, you cannot sell the land by corrupt means, taking bribes, whatever you like. You are from Sydney, you know the leader there had to resign over just a bottle of wine – I like that. We need Cambodia to be able to go through that kind of a stage so that the leader is not there to have countless power and money, but to be more responsible. And to be a responsible leader is hard work. I don’t think anyone wants to spend 30 years as a prime minister, especially in a country that needs a lot of development, a lot of reform to take place.
So I liked the system so much that in all my 26 years here in Cambodia I worked so hard in the parliament and tried to improve the parliament as an institution so the parliament will represent the nation, will be able to have oversight of the government and ensure that we have good laws in place, make sure that good services are provided to the people. Sometimes I was so disappointed, but if we had a similar system to what we have in Australia I would be very, very happy. I could then be sure that we would not have to go through all this suffering that we have encountered in the ’60s, war in the ’70s, Pol Pot, and then the Vietnamese invasion. We had all this suffering, and I think to end the suffering, to stop the leader from abusing the power and make the country suffer, we must have a good system in place.
A video of this interview can be seen at: www.khmertimeskh.com