“We Were Going the Burmese Way”
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

“We Were Going the Burmese Way”

By Sam Rainsy [2006] Thursday, May 11, 2006


Sam Rainsy, leader of the main Cambodian opposition Sam Rainsy Party, reflects on a turbulent six months in Phnom Penh politics and the prospects for change in Burma.

Interview by Clive Parker in Phnom Penh/Cambodia

Question: In February, you returned from exile under circumstances that have confused observers, given your usually difficult relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Have the two of you reconciled your differences?
Answer: No, we still hold different views, but the change is in the fact that there is a dialogue. This is normal in western countries. The opposition talks with the government and vice versa. But in Cambodia—up to last year—it was not the case. Actually, we have just established a new habit, a new spirit—the spirit of dialogue. You can say a new culture of dialogue.

Q: At the end of last year, we saw Hun Sen threatening legal action against his critics. You were in exile until February. How has this turnaround happened so quickly?

A: I think the government and the opposition were stuck. There was political pressure, of course, on the government to be more open, and the opposition [felt] pressure—we cannot remain in the same position as before. I had to come back to Cambodia. Each of us—the government and the opposition—has to make a step towards the other.

Q: Cynics have suggested, though, that Hun Sen’s softer stance is little more than window-dressing in the face of criticism from the international community—particularly the US—and a bid to make sure Cambodia received sufficient money at this year’s international donors conference (in which Cambodia received US $600 million). How confident are you that recent improvements are permanent?

A: Look, so far, so good. Fortunately there is a lot of wood in this country thanks to deforestation [he says while placing his hand on the table]. So far, so good…so I hope this new spirit of dialogue will continue.

Q: Many people said at the end of last year that Cambodia was going the same way as Burma. How do you see things as Cambodia’s leading opposition figure?

A: Those who said until last January that Cambodia was following the Burmese way, those people were right, and I did say that also, up to February. And, thanks to international pressure, the situation reversed. Hun Sen went even further than the international community expected from him.

There’s two differences between Burma and Cambodia. Unlike Cambodia, Burma has not been the object of the international community bringing about a solution. In Cambodia, we have the Paris Peace Accord in 1991. Democratization is at the heart of the Paris Peace Accord. So this is the obligation of the international community that Cambodia remains on the democratic path.

And the second difference is that Burma has always been isolated, whereas Cambodia [is] vitally dependent on international assistance. Therefore, the international community has leverage on the situation in Cambodia.

Q: Some people have suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi might be more effective if she left Burma and used her international popularity to promote change from outside. As an opposition figure that has lived in exile, how do you view her situation?

A: What I remember having said when people ask me—I was sentenced to 18 months in prison—and they said “why don’t you go back and go to prison like Aung San Suu Kyi?” I said I do not have the same stature as Aung San Suu Kyi. If I am in jail temporarily, everyone would forget me. I have to be more flexible and adapt, depending on circumstances. Then I am in a position to take advantage of change in the pressure from the international community, but there is no…effective pressure on Burma. I know that the international pressure on Cambodia is effective. So I can move, I can be flexible, I can take advantage of any change because the situation in Cambodia is more volatile.

Therefore I cannot say whether it would be a good idea for Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country because I don’t know how the military junta would react.

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