PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Hours after a court sentenced 11 opposition figures, including the party spokesman, to up 20 years in prison, Sam Rainsy, the party president, boarded a flight from here to Paris.
Knowing that opposition followers will stew over this fact this weekend, Mr. Rainsy yesterday furiously conducted damage control. From Paris, he drafted a lengthy self-justification and then gave a long interview to the French newspaper, Liberation.
In that interview, Mr. Rainsy confidently predicted that Prime Minister Hun Sen is preparing to leave power. That seemed to fly in the face of a stern speech the Prime Minister gave back here yesterday, telling army and police generals to crush any sign of a “color revolution.”
“I planned my trip to France many weeks ago,” Mr. Rainsy wrote to his followers two days after the verdicts.
“Sometimes I can be more effective abroad in defending Cambodia’s democratic cause,” said the opposition leader who was in Paris just last month.
“The culture of dialogue is still new and fragile, but it will prove vital for the country’s democratic future,” said the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP. Referring to the jail sentences, he added: “It reflects a long term vision and must not be derailed by day-to-day events, as painful as they may be.”
Lack of Leadership?
But at home, Mr. Rainsy was seen by many as showing a lack of leadership.
“I’m going to say this flat out: Mr. Rainsy, stop leaving the country when the people who work for you are under arrest, cancel your trip and owe [sic]up to your so-called ‘culture of dialogue,’” Kem Samathida, a daughter of party vice president, Kem Sokha, wrote in English on her Facebook page. “I don’t buy it that it’s a coincidence that every time CNRP members are arrested you just conveniently happen to schedule to leave the country.”
“A leader doesn’t leave when there’s a problem and come back once the problem is about to ease to claim credit,” she wrote. “A leader stays and stands firm with his followers.”
The Facebook post was taken down after a few hours, but she seemed to voice bluntly what many people in Cambodia were thinking quietly.
Lak Sopheap, a former member of the CNRP steering committee, said that in past years she watched Mr. Rainsy repeatedly take off for France when things got tough.
“He’s a cowardly person, he never stays in the country to work with the party to resolve a problem,” said Ms. Sopheap who was expelled from the party in January after alleging high level corruption. “He left to France for his own comfort, rather than national interest.”
In the US, the CNRP is splitting into two groups, with hardliners opposing Mr. Rainsy’s ‘culture of dialogue’ with the Hun Sen government. Brady N. Young, a Khmer-American CNRP supporter, sent this message by SMS yesterday: “The culture of dialogue became worse now.”
A Long-Term View
In the interview with the center-left Parisian newspaper, Mr. Rainsy, a fluent French speaker, explained his need to leave for France as part of his effort to raise funds for the opposition’s planned TV station.
On the verdicts, he took a philosophical view, one that perhaps can only be taken by a third generation elite politician.
“The repression comes back – it’s a new tempest,” he told Arnaud Vaulerin, the newspaper’s Tokyo correspondent. “We are used to it. These 20 year sentences never last long.”
“Hun Sen blows hot and cold,” he said. Referring to the Prime Minister, who is four years his junior, Mr. Rainsy said: “It’s the effect of age, and the awareness that his reign is coming to its end.”
PM Against ‘Color Revolutions’
Mr. Rainsy’s confident prediction from Paris of regime change in Cambodia seemed to collide with the reality of a tough speech that the Prime Minister gave yesterday to an assembly of the nation’s top military and police officers.
“All the branches of the armed forces must ensure that no color revolution happen in Cambodia,” he lectured an estimated 5,000 top security personnel gathered at the prime minister’s Bodyguard Headquarters in Kandal province. Referring to efforts by street protesters to destabilize his government, he said: “At any price, you must demolish them immediately to protect the legitimate government.”
He ordered the commanders gathered before him to educate lower ranking officers, soldier and street level policemen about the dangers of out-of-control street protests.
“All and any action which aims to overthrow the government, [the armed forces] must eliminate immediately, without hesitation,” he said. “There will absolutely no tolerance here for a color revolution.”
A “color revolution” has become a catchall phrase to refer to massive street protests that have forced presidents to step down in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Georgia and Ukraine.
In a reflection of Cambodia’s sharpening political tensions, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, or CPP, issued a statement late Wednesday night responding to protests over Tuesday’s convictions of the 11 opposition figures.
They had been convicted of leading or joining an “insurrection” at a protest that turned violent one year ago.
“The CPP respects human rights and reedoms of individuals in their exercise of rights and freedoms under the state’s law,” the party statement said. “So Cambodia has no political prisoners, but politicians who commit offences and are punished by law.” (Additional reporting by James Brooke and Ven Rathavong)
An estimated 5,000 high-ranking military and police officers listen Thursday in Kandal province to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech ordering them to be on guard against “color revolutions.” Photo: AKP