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November 30, 2000

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A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

FEBRUARY 18, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 6

'I Can Only Speak Out'
Sam Rainsy takes on the establishment

The elected leader of Cambodia's opposition, Sam Rainsy stirs controversy like no other politician in his country. In his millennium message, Rainsy predictably attacked the Hun Sen government, and critiqued Cambodian fatalism as a major impediment to progress. Soon after, he raised the sensitive issue of how the ailing King Norodom Sihanouk will be succeeded. The remarks were condemned as "a curse" on the monarch by PM Hun Sen and other establishment figures. On Feb. 5 Rainsy, 50, met with Special Correspondent Dominic Faulder to explain his feistiness. The extended interview:

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What shape is the Sam Rainsy Party in at the moment?

You will see at our next congress, which will be held on 12 and 13 February, next week. In Cambodia, for the Sam Rainsy Party and many other things, you have to make a distinction between appearances and substance. When I called this country a 'banana kingdom', it seemed to shock a lot of people. They don't understand the word 'banana' and translated it literally as the fruit. It doesn't mean anything. A banana republic is a fake republic, fake democracy. Actually, those fake banana republics in the 1950s in central America were fake institutions with families of crooks and organized crime. They were family owned but represented at the UN and so on. So I was referring to this kind of a situation. It wasn't about a fruit at all. The economies of those central American republics relied on banana plantations, and they were known for banana exports to the US and Europe. This is why they were called banana republics. When I refer to a banana kingdom, people pay attention. It cuts the façade - scratches a little bit to see what is behind the façade.

Behind the façade, you find people who do not dare to speak much. In the countryside, there are very few [SRP] signs still left because of intimidation. It is not safe to be known as a Sam Rainsy supporter. But what matters is what people really do think, in their minds, and how they feel in their hearts. As far as this is concerned, I am quite confident that faith in a better Cambodia remains intact in people's minds and hearts.

Going back to your controversial New Year's Eve message, you used words in that which were quite inflammatory. You have also called people clowns. Do you think you are too provocative?

That message - you can do it only once every thousand years. So I had the opportunity to call on people to address crucial issues, and to shake people up a little.

So you're deliberately provocative. You're not denying that.

Yes. I recognize that but it was really intended to wake people up. It was a unique opportunity. Provocative or not, it was the first time that I really put things together in a broad picture. There were many issues - philosophy, fatalism. It is not provocative, but basic issues. You cannot make philosophy every day. When you address the nation, millions of people, on this occasion of the year 2000, you have to step back and take a look at the way people think. I called on people not to rely on fatalism. There are some aspects of Buddhism related to previous lives, but this only after other aspects of Buddhism which are positive. We have to fight for these things, not to blame troubles now on our previous lives. I want people to concentrate their hope and not to hope for a better life in their next life.

All right. You want to shake them up '85.

Yes, shake them up and wake them up. I can do it only once every thousand years. I will be more careful in my message for the year 3000.

That's reassuring - it will be in one of your future lives. But if you think of Cambodia as a bee nest with democracy as the honey inside, is it sensible to put a stick in it rather than do something more subtle? Smoke the bees out - you've really managed to get them riled.

No. I wrote that message from Paris. I spent the New Year with my family there. I wrote it in English and French to put on the internet, mainly for overseas Cambodians.

Then it wasn't really for Cambodian Cambodians.

They are opinion makers. There are intellectuals abroad who are connected to the internet, and I expected people who got it in Cambodia to understand. If not, to get the correct translation and interpretation. The ruling party here, intentionally or unintentionally, distorted it. If you see their translation, you will see that is in an appeal to civil war, an appeal to armed struggle, a threat to the stability of the country, against the religion. They thought that I wanted to start a religious war because I just had my interpretation of some of the Buddha's teaching. We are entitled to have our interpretations. For 2000 years, things have been said in such a way. In the new millennium, things can change in the minds of people. So it was distorted totally. When I talked about the silent revolution I meant spiritual revolution. But these Khmer Rouge people now in power in Phnom Penh, when they heard the word revolution they thought I was calling for a similar kind of revolution to theirs. In the message the day before yesterday from the National Assembly, they accused me of sedition. They do not understand the real meaning of my message.

We know what Cambodia is like. The level of vitriol in politics and the things people say about each other is really very exceptional - worse than almost anywhere. Attacks are very personal. Do you think this is really a good idea in a country with such serious internal problems and which basically needs, in Buddhist terms, a middle way?

I think that Buddhism and democracy imply tolerance, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion. Without starting any religious war or pushing for any political revolution, we have to accept other people's views. The ruling party, the CPP -- Funcinpec just follows -- wants a conception of society that I challenge. I am not obliged to accept their presentation. If you challenge their conception of society and politics, then they say you are a threat to national unity or to peace and order and stability. That is dictatorship. As to religious thinking, I said that I wanted to concentrate on this present life. This is [no reason] to accuse me of being seditious. I consider that the truth hurts most. When I said that the monarchy is only a thin veneer to hide a dictatorial regime, I think many people agreed with me but nobody dares to elaborate on it or express it in that way.

Well, lots of people would say that there's truth in it but that we are in a country with very delicate institutions that are gradually recovering from serious political trauma. They were destroyed.

The most dangerous things are weapons - bullets, grenades, rockets. Words should not kill anybody.

Should not.

No. And do not kill anybody. The only weapon I have used is my pen whereas my supporters and myself have been victims of bullets and grenades. People do not condemn this real violence. Words and ideas push people to think and revise their conception of society, to be more demanding. Then you become less fatalistic and more demanding from the government and from everybody, even in this present life. This made them very upset. I do not share the idea that just urging people to think of their future will make them masters of it. They must shape their position and be citizens of a modern state. Again, this word has been translated wrong. I said, 'from the status of passive subject of a banana kingdom, we have to fight to become active citizens of a modern state.' Frankly, you can fight for democracy but peacefully. I urged people to fight to become active citizens instead of passive subjects. In the previous 2000 years, they were passive subjects and I want Cambodians to be active citizens. You have to fight to gain this status of an active citizen - making choices, shaping your own future. They must be citizens instead of passive subjects who accept everything and blame mistakes supposedly made in previous lives. Hoping for better in the next life is not progressive at all. And this philosophy that I am advocating they consider as threat to national stability. What does it mean? It means that their stability is not strong. They would not be afraid of such words. Suppose I advocated these things in another more liberal country. It would be more natural. People would listen to what we are saying as common sense. But in Cambodia, this is really revolutionary.

But non-violent.

Non-violent. I am the only major political party which has never had any military arm. So accusing me of inciting violence, of provoking a bloody revolution etcetera, it is because they have those things in their minds and they project their scheme of thinking into other people's minds.

I can see exactly what you are saying, but at the end of the day you have a very sharp pen and a very sharp tongue and you hurt them. You are aware of the power of these things. What do you do to make sure you don't go too far? Words can kill. We know that.

I will have to wait another thousand years for such an opportunity. You can wake up people only on rare occasions, like the entry of the millennium. In Thailand, Mr Chuan Leekpai is known for his honeycoated razor tongue. Maybe I have to put more honey on my razor.

In modern democracies, whatever they may be, we have the parliamentary system. You are the leader of the opposition in this emerging, fledgling democracy. Why is it that you feel the parliamentary system is not serving your needs? Why can't you make these points in parliament which is what it is there for?

When we ask for question and answer sessions and debate in the National Assembly, they don't want them. [Predident of the National Assembly, Prince Norodom] Ranariddh promised every Thursday. He promised to respect the constitution. Once a week, a Q&A session. We had it once. It was prepared in advance with ministers making speeches all of the day. Since that, nothing. When MPs ask questions to the government, they should get answers with seven days. We have asked sixty questions and they have answered about twenty. All the answers have been most irregular. They tell donor countries that they have answered. If I ask them how big is my house, they answer that my house is green. They tell me the colour when I asked about the size. They provide me with irrelevant answers. So there is no dialogue, no possibility of discussing seriously. It's simply not happening. And there is no checks and balances system. The executive is basically running it. The prime minister can order anything. Law is always voted in according to the will of the government. They make decisions for the judiciary. Yesterday I had another illustration of that. The Constitutional Council declared itself incompetent for interpretation of the law. I asked for my party to be represented in the National Election Committee. Mr Hun Sen said no. He interprets the law in his own way. I asked the Constitutional Council if it agreed with the Prime Minister's interpretation of the law and they answered in writing saying that they are not competent to make a comment. This is contrary to the constitution. The constitution says the Constitutional Council has the duty among many other things to interpret laws passed by the National Assembly, and this was a law passed by the National Assembly. The Prime Minister gave his interpretation, which is equivalent to a decision, not to allow the Sam Rainsy Party to be represented, and by the way to allow Funcinpec to be represented. So it has frozen the composition of the NEC. This is the decision of Mr Hun Sen. I called the National Assembly, I called the judiciary, I called the Constitutional Council. Democracy doesn't function here. There are no checks and balances. There is no separation of powers. So the only way is to speak up and loudly from time to time.

Simple things like the lack of debate can be addressed. Have you told Prince Ranariddh? Does he just do nothing?

They find excuses. They say they have a different agenda, different priorities. Actually they are right. Their priorities and ours are not the same. My priorities now would be land reform, communal elections, discussions about illegal logging, impunity, the Khmer Rouge tribunal. But they have other priorities. They have the commerce law, they want to reshuffle the government, they have just amended the constitution to allow the creation of the senate. This is just to make the facade more elaborate without addressing the substance.

These are not new complaints from you. You've been saying the same things for a very long time. We all have to live in a real world at the end of the day with the people around us and make compromises, even when they are very unreasonable people. Do you sometimes feel that the standards you apply to Cambodia are just a bit too high?

I think the standard that we have applied to Cambodia is much too low. Too low. It depends on your references and basis of comparison. If you use the Khmer Rouge as the basis for comparison, the standards applied here are already much better than under Pol Pot. If you are content with such an explanation, including many donor countries, it makes people feel comfortable. It's easy to compliment each other. It's a great improvement compared to Pol Pot. But if you refer to the potential of Cambodia, if you compare it to neighboring countries and the rest of the world, if you look at the opportunities given to Cambodia since the UN came in 1992 and the amount of international attention and assistance paid to this country, I think there were a lot of opportunities and we could have done much much better. We have performed very badly. If you compare it to Pol Pot, we can only do better than Pol Pot.

But the comparison with Pol Pot is ridiculous. Nobody should make it.

But people do.

If you take the watershed as 1993, would you at least say that the country is becoming more democratic even it's not going fast enough for you? Is it at least going in the right direction.

Yes, but I would make the distinction again between facade and what is behind, between appearance and substance. I think there is a 90 per cent improvement in appearance and 10 per cent improvement in substance.

Page 2: On Succession >>

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