The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

“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. Would they let her in again? So maybe the Burmese people, if she is away, would they have the same confidence? Would they feel abandoned? I cannot put myself in the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi. Maybe she feels that her duty is to remain inside Burma to give confidence to the Burmese people and not to give the impression that she abandoned them. This is a moral conscience—that is the problem. You cannot judge a person like Aung San Suu Kyi, whatever she does.

Q: Asean has been noticeably more vocal about Burma recently. Is Cambodia doing enough on Burma? What more could the country do?

A: First of all, I’m ashamed of the Cambodian government for being so complacent with the military regime…over the last ten years. I did not support the Cambodian government inviting Than Shwe to visit Cambodia for the first time in 1996. I organized three demonstrations against the arrival of Than Shwe. But I am happy to see over the last few months a change in the policy. Upon my return to Cambodia in February this year, Hun Sen told me that Cambodia cannot wait for Burma, we will not wait for Burma—meaning that we must progress towards democracy and distance ourselves from Burma, because otherwise we will be stuck. The European Union and the US will not meet Asean, especially the new members of Asean. If Cambodia does not distance herself from Burma, then Cambodia will be a pariah state like Burma and we will not be able to attend those meetings. Burma does not deserve that we wait for them, that we support them. It is in our interest that we distance ourselves from Burma and we will move forward—leave Burma behind. This is what Hun Sen told me.

Q: We seem to have two schools of though on this now. Singapore has indicated that it is willing to sideline Burma, whereas Indonesia and Malaysia have attempted to drag the regime into line. What is your view on this?

A: When the Sam Rainsy Party takes power or has any significant leverage in the Cambodian government, we will suggest Asean to kick Burma out, unless they release Aung San Suu Kyi from jail and start talks to bring about democracy.

Q: Does Hun Sen have any sympathy for the Burmese junta given Cambodia’s own difficult recent past?

A: No, he [Hun Sen] wants to have a good image. He wants to redeem himself. Some leaders, abusive leaders, at the end of their career want to improve their image, and this is one of the reasons why he wants to distance himself from Burma. He wants to appear at the end of his career as somebody—a good leader—who has engaged Cambodia in the right direction. He knows that the future lies with democracy.

Q: Cambodia suffered a very terrible genocide at the end of the 1970’s, perhaps the worst in the world. As someone that has seen the effects of genocide and what it means, how real are the claims that the Burmese junta is currently inflicting genocide on its own people?

A: I think any dictatorship is prone to resort to genocide. You have to be a dictator to use any means to take power…any means. So I am not surprised given the complexity of the situation in Burma—the minorities, the resistance—and given the way the Burmese regime operates, with forced labor. It is understandable. Resistance on the part of the whole people—women, children, this generation, the coming generation. As long as you treat people like that, they will resist. And dictators, they know to achieve their goal, they will not hesitate…it is the nature of dictatorship to do anything by all means to any resistance. So it is all the more urgent to bring an end to this dictatorship, because many lives are at stake, and whole communities could be wiped out if we leave the regime to continue their current policy.

Q: Finally, should Burma be addressed at the UN Security Council—is it an international problem?

A: Yes, yes, yes. [The UNSC should] vote for a resolution condemning these practices and urging all those that care—officially at least—that they do not encourage in one way or another the regime to violate human rights of all the peoples in Burma. I know that this would meet the resistance of China, but we have to be firm. It’s a matter of principle.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |