Meach Sovannara, a former top official of the dissolved CNRP who was imprisoned twice, is concerned over the political situation stemming from a planned return by Sam Rainsy to the Kingdom. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Mr Sovannara says that only peaceful dialogue can ease the political deadlock faced by Cambodia right now.
KT: After four years in custody, has your career as a politician been downsized?
Mr Sovannara: It has not been changed nor do I have any regret. I am not afraid of imprisonment because I did not do anything wrong; I stand on non-violent principles and only use my knowledge to enhance the nation’s human resources. I still have the right to do politics, unlike the other 118 CNRP members who have been banned from it. No one wants to go to jail, but one needs to walk bona fide on the path of truth to achieve success. We [politicians] have to tread the middle way and should not switch sides easily. Harmony shall be formed through peace by both the ruling and opposition parties through dialogue and rational, constructive criticism. Politicians should not make enemies amongst themselves.
KT: Since your release, have you ever changed your mindset or perspective toward the CNRP?
Mr Sovannara: I still support the CNRP for its principles of non-violence, fair competition and dialogue. Yet, if its leaders have moved away from these principles, I have the right to criticise constructively. A war brings nothing but pain and suffering to society and people. The culture of love can bury conflicts, but as the owners of the country we need national unity, fairness and transparency, particularly without abuse of power.
KT: Do you see the leaders of the former opposition turning to violence?
Mr Sovannara: I see that Kem Sokha’s policy longs for conciliation, negotiation and peaceful dialogue, which would lead to reforms and good governance. Yet, now officials from the ruling party are no longer worried due to the absence of the main opposition party and criticism, and do not do their jobs well. When a democratic country does not have an opposition party, no one believes whatever it says.
KT: When are you resuming your career in politics? And which party are you going to join?
Mr Sovannara: I am still confident in dialogue and I keep asking and asking for it, because when I met with the former European and Japanese ambassadors and senior US officials stationed in Cambodia, they told me they want us to talk and solve the problems. For the dialogue to be possible, Mr Sokha has to be released first. I am still confident that Prime Minister Hun Sen still prefers the “Killing Two Birds with One Stone” policy.
KT: Can you go into a bit more detail on what you have just mentioned? What do you think should be done to alleviate the current political tension?
Mr Sovannara: The court and legal procedures lie within the coordination of the government and the Ministry of Justice. The latter is one which monitors prosecution, but this political matter should be settled among politicians. From now until the 9th of November [Independence Day when Mr Rainsy claims he will return], I believe that the ruling party will not be stupid. I noticed that Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng recently went on a field trip to Germany, despite being banned from receiving a visa because of a political crisis in 2017, because Germany wants to talk with him about the EBA. Such an act is about giving face and avoiding diplomatic conflicts, which would have negative impacts on the liberal economy. By November, the European Union will also reveal whether it will take away the EBA from Cambodia by February or not.
I think to ease the tension, there needs to be another main opposition party. I don’t believe that party will be CNRP again. But before that, we need a tri-party concord involving the opposition and ruling parties, along with the awareness from international communities such as the European Union and the United States. We do not want political crisis to happen again and again like before. We need long-term mutual trust between the ruling and the opposition parties. In the future, we have to revolutionise the mindset by stopping colouring and labelling one another.
KT: You mentioned that Kem Sokha will be released before November 9. Why do you think it will happen?
Mr Sovannara: There are two benefits from the release. First, it is a reconciliation of diplomatic and economic relationship with the European Union and other international communities who would like to see the freeing of Mr Sokha and dialogue. Secondly, it is to compromise for what could happen on November 9, when Mr Rainsy has claimed he would return to Cambodia. That could prevent chaos and violence.
KT: What do you think would influence the government’s decision? Is it the possibility of Sam Rainsy’s repatriation or a scenario devised by international communities?
Mr Sovannara: I think it will be to negotiate with the international stakeholders rather than to prevent Mr Rainsy from making his return. [The government] is thinking about the economy and political stability resulting from relationships between democratic countries. Unlike Vietnam or Thailand, Cambodia is country with a young and fragile economy, still importing more goods than it can export. Politicians have to put away their personal grudges, and focus on [development] for the sake of the population of more than 15 million people.
KT: You mentioned that it is unlikely that CNRP will compete in the 2023 National Election, but you did mention ‘a new party’ as a new main opposition. To which political party do you refer?
Mr Sovannara: Cambodian people see democracy, elections and leaders differently from other people in the region. They worship their leaders like gods rather than policymakers or leaders. That leads to a mindset that people love the individuals rather than policies or principles. I find that as long as the leaders from both parties do not prepare their successors, the Cambodian people will find it hard to trust new parties and leaders. When Mr Sokha becomes free again, those who used to work under him can come back to him and together found a new opposition party for 2023. It does not matter who the leader will be, but there is need for a founding father.