The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

"Our Burmese brothers are even more unfortunate"
By SAM RAINSY [2000] Tuesday, August 1, 2000

In this exclusive interview, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy discusses the challenges facing democrats in two of Southeast Asia’s most politically devastated countries.

Interview by Wunna Kyaw/Phnom Penh

Question: It appears that Cambodia has made some progress towards democracy. Do you think Cambodia is now on the right track?

Answer: On the surface, there’s been some progress. Because there is a legally recognized opposition party, and because debates have been held in the parliament, there is an appearance of democracy in Cambodia. We have the monarchy and the coalition government. But progress has only been superficial. The nature of the Hun Sen regime is very authoritarian and to some extent similar to the military regime in Burma. But I think our Burmese brothers are, maybe, even more unfortunate.

Q: Given the fact that you can organize demonstrations and speak out on injustices, are you hopeful that democracy will prevail in Cambodia?

A: We can protest at a calculated risk. Three years ago, at a protest that I led, at least 16 people were killed by a grenade attack. Less than two years ago, there were massive protests against the regime. Officially only two people were killed during the crackdown. But in fact, dozens of people were killed. Their bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs, floating in the Mekong River after being tortured. They were executed by the secret police. There were even debates at the National Assembly regarding the killings. But the government did not do anything because it has an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and can do whatever it wishes.

Q: I hear that attempts have been made on your life.

A: Many activists in the opposition party have been killed. At least two persons have been killed so far this year and in the previous year seven people were killed. So it is not only myself but also people at the grassroots level whoever speaks out or conducts activities against the regime who are harassed or even killed.

Q: The Cambodian government is planning to hold local elections next year. It seems like a good sign, but do you think the elections will go well and pass without violence?

A: The present leaders of Cambodia will not follow what the Burmese dictators did by allowing fair elections to take place because they would then have to cancel the election results. Instead, they will prevent free and fair elections from happening by cheating in the elections so that the opposition, the democrats, cannot win.

Q: What are the latest developments in the on-going efforts to try former Khmer Rouge leaders? Are you hopeful that justice will be served in the end?

A: I would like to see Khmer Rouge leaders tried by an international tribunal controlled by the United Nations because the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent. It just acts under the orders of the government. If the UN can come and organize the trial then the Cambodian people will be very happy. But unfortunately, the regime in Cambodia does not want the UN to come because any trial of Khmer Rouge leaders would implicate some of the (government) leaders in Phnom Penh. They killed a lot of people and are still in power. So they are very upset about the possibility of a real trial organized by the UN.

Q: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) recently indicated that it is not yet ready to create a human rights commission. Do you feel that Asean is doing enough to resolve human rights issues in countries like Cambodia and Burma?

A: So far, in spite of the good intentions stated by some Asean leaders, I don't think that Asean is helping enough to promote human rights in countries where they are violated, like Burma, Cambodia and even Malaysia. I would like to see another Asean, an alternative Asean, more sensitive and responsive to human rights principles, and more willing to act and defend them, which will show real and strong solidarity with democrats in their fight for democracy in the region.

Q: You mentioned in one of your remarks that you have engaged in dialogue with the authorities. Does this mean that you have abandoned your confrontational style? Should Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma follow your example?

A: I think you have to stick to principles. You cannot give up your principles. Even though I have engaged in some dialogue with the government, I would never abandon the principles of democracy.

In contrast to Burma, Cambodia is under strong pressure from the international community, which has some power over the regime here because, unlike in Burma, the survival of the Cambodian regime is very much dependent on international assistance. Burma has been isolated for decades and the generals there don’t care too much about international pressure. Because of the international pressure, the Hun Sen regime is more willing to accept dialogue, real dialogue with the opposition.

Q: Would you like to say anything to the people in Burma?

A: I would like to tell the Burmese people that Cambodian people, like our Burmese brothers and sisters, love freedom and democracy. We support those who love and fight for freedom and democracy. We are confident that democracy will come to Burma. And the Cambodian people will be happy to do whatever they can do to help the Burmese people in their fight for democracy and human rights.

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