The country's opposition leader reveals he is willing to cooperate with Hun Sen in building a new Cambodia and would offer the prime minister a pardon when he relinquishes his rule. But after years of de facto dictatorship, many dangers remain on the roa
Would you consider joint development with Thailand over Preah Vihear? Hun Sen has totally rejected that concept, but Thais and the Thai government are suggesting it could help the two countries reconcile.
I think that among the principles we mentioned earlier, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, for any country, must be recognised and respected first and from that we can find different formulas whereby to work together for mutual benefit.
So, you are ready to consider that?
Yes, but based on the principle mentioned. There is not only the case of Preah Vihear, but other potential issues like overlapping economic zones, where there are offshore oil and gas deposits. So there are many possible formulas to work together for common prosperity.
Apart from Vietnam and Thailand, major powers like China the US, Russia also play roles with Cambodia. Are you happy with the balance you have with major powers?
We have to be friends with everybody, including Vietnam and Thailand, according to the vision I’ve just developed. So Cambodia must be neutral in order to remain independent, in order to contribute to peace in this region. I look forward to going to Vietnam, to Thailand, to receiving leaders from neighbouring countries, to work in the spirit of this basis, so that we all can become friends and work peacefully for common prosperity.
You have been following the ongoing protests in Thailand. In Cambodia, at least you have a ‘ceasefire’ and you are negotiating. Do you have any contact with protestors in Thailand?
Do you know Suthep [Thaugsuban]?
Yes, I’ve heard of him.
You’ve met him?
Would you like to talk to him?
There’s no urgency, I prefer to watch from the outside.
What do you think of the protests in Thailand compared to what is happening here [in Cambodia]?
You know, when you look from a distance – Cambodia – you realise that Thailand is much more mature in terms of political evolution. You have an independent judiciary, this is crucial. In Cambodia, the justice system is under the control of the ruling party. This is why the situation is so bad. We are blocked, but in Thailand, at least the judiciary is independent and can render decisions that can move the situation forward in a fair way. In Cambodia, it is impunity that prevails. The prevailing impunity has allowed Hun Sen to stay in power for a long time, and the justice system is used by Hun Sen as a political tool to crack down on and eliminate his opponents and to defend his reign and rule. So from that point of view Thailand is in much better shape. Second point: in Thailand you have an independent electoral commission, nobody contests the result of elections. After each election, the winner, the loser, the ruling party, the opposition, they all recognise that the people could vote – one man, one vote. And on the whole, the results reflect the will of the Thai people. But in Cambodia, any election is a distortion of the will of the people, and that is why we don’t accept the result of elections, which have been rigged and marred by countless irregularities. And it isn’t only the opposition but all the independent observers, national and international, that say the last election was the worst election we have had. So from these two points – an independent justice system and an independent electoral commission – Thailand is much more advanced than Cambodia.
You know that Prime Minister Hun Sen is close to Prime Minister Yingluck and Thaksin. Do you think there could be any similarity between here and Thailand in the way the powerful or those close to one another have cracked down on your position?
No. If such a thing was confirmed, it would be a violation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord on Cambodia, which calls for Cambodia to be neutral, not to take sides in any conflict in any neighbouring country. So the new relationship in Cambodia will be strict and will abide by this provision of the Paris peace agreement.
The Hun Sen government has rejected any suggestion that it is supporting the Thai government, but there are accusations that Cambodian soldiers have sneaked into Thailand to help in the struggle against protesters.
I cannot say anything, because I don’t have reliable evidence, but there is reliable evidence that Khun Thaksin has come to Cambodia and has been an adviser to Hun Sen.
Is he officially an advisor to PM Hun
Yes. Hun Sen appointed him as a personal advisor and Thaksin accepted, but he subsequently resigned. But even for one minute this was not appropriate, not even for one minute. When there’s a problem in a neighbouring country, we should refrain from giving any indication that we are taking sides.
The situation in Thailand is deadlocked because both sides refuse to negotiate. But here, you have at least agreed to form a joint committee to negotiate. How could Thai protesters and the Thai government learn from your model?
No! We want to learn from you, we want to set up an independent electoral commission, we want to have an independent judiciary. Our situation is worse than yours. At least in Thailand, people can express their views, can demonstrate. Here in Phnom Penh you cannot demonstrate – up to nine people gathered together is alright, but more than nine and you can go to jail. And if you resist, they can come and shoot us. At least you have more freedom in Thailand. But I feel very sorry about Thailand. I think there are certain people or a country that want to destabilise Thailand for their own long-term objectives; this is very sad and very dangerous. I hope that all Thais, regardless of political affiliation, will come together to strengthen national unity. Don’t let anybody destabilise, divide you.
Are you suggesting that a foreign country is trying to destabilise Thailand?
In Cambodia also, they are trying to destabilise Cambodia.
When a country has ambitions on a neighbouring country, they will want to destabilise the target country to make it weaker. Then they can control that country easily.
So, you don’t think we can learn anything from you in terms of ending street demonstrations, sitting down and starting negotiations for a reform agenda?
Yes we are starting to negotiate reform of the election system. We are negotiating to set up a new electoral commission which would be more independent than the existing one, and we are looking at Thailand as a model for the process of selecting or forming an independent and respected electoral commission, so we have to learn from you. Also, you have a very strong civil society, respected journalists, judges, lawyers who speak their mind. This is excellent; in Cambodia we have very little.
You are looking forward to building that?
Yes. We want to encourage this so that people can be independent and can speak according to their conscience, and not out of fear or personal interest. Because this country is under the total control of Hun Sen, even professionals – whether lawyers, architects or physicians – don’t dare to criticise the regime. By doing so you will lose everything – clients, contracts, and you will be concerned for your own safety. This is a vicious cycle that explains why dictatorships last so long.
you are the leader of the opposition, the most prominent enemy of Hun Sen. Aren’t you afraid of being murdered, assassinated?
Since the beginning, when I committed myself to fighting for justice in my country and to opposing the current regime, I have been aware I have only three possible fates: being killed, being jailed or being forced to into exile. I have experienced the first two, but I’m aware that all three possibilities can arise anytime.
So you realise you can get killed at anytime?
How do you protect yourself from that?
I don’t have time to think about it. If I thought about the possibility of getting killed, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Some people say that if you are not afraid to die, you will die only once. But if you are afraid to die, you die a little every day, so you are not the same person you used to be.
But we are human beings, we are afraid of death. You must have some spiritual inspiration to say I’m not afraid of death?
I’m too busy.
And also, time is running out, right? We are not getting any younger.
I’m prepared for that, I’m preparing the young generation to be qualified to take on the destiny of this country.
So, you are really confident that change is just around the corner for Cambodia?
Yes, it’s inevitable. I’m very confident that the wind of freedom is blowing stronger all over the world and I’m sure that this wind will reach Cambodia very soon.
What if Hun Sen asks you to form a coalition government with him. Will you agree to that?
No. Hun Sen asked me a different thing at our last meeting in September.
What did he say?
He asked me to prepare an amnesty law for him.
Wow! Meaning that he expects you to become prime minister?
No, not that clear. But he realises that he cannot remain in power forever. He needs to think about a smooth evolution, so he asked for an amnesty law that would protect three persons, the Senate president, president of national assembly and the prime minister. The Senate president is Chea Sim, who is also president of the ruling [Cambodia People’s] party. The president of the national assembly is Heng Samrin who is also honorary president of the CPP. And Hun Sen is vice president of the CPP. So he asked for amnesty for these three top leaders.
But you are not in the position to issue an amnesty, so why did he ask you?
He thinks ahead. He told me that “we, the ruling party, cannot initiate such a law, but if you, the opposition, initiate such a law, the ruling party will support it”.
It seems such a strange request to the opposition leader…
This means things have changed in Cambodia.
What did you reply?
Of course, “yes”.
You said yes?
So, you are colluding with him?
For the sake of Cambodia and to preserve peace.
So you have agreed to forgive him if you become PM. You would pardon him for the things he has done to the country?
I think it’s understandable that he wants his life to be preserved, he wants his freedom to be preserved, he wants his dignity to be preserved, at least a portion of his wealth to be preserved, and there are similar examples all over the world of such requests being granted in order to assure a smooth transition.
So he would remain in the country if you assumed power? He would be the legal opposition leader and you would not ask for investigations?
No. There are many possibilities, we will not going into details. We have to study different possibilities – from the legal point of view, from the humanitarian and political point of view. For example, he could be made a senator for life.
So he realises that the end is near for him?
Yes, and that his desire to found a dynasty is not realistic. He cannot be like Kim Il-sung. In the modern world, it is impossible to found a dynasty of leaders.
You are willing to compromise in this?
Yes, for the sake of the country, for a smooth transition to avoid bloodshed.
Did you ask him for a pardon? Are you still under investigation? Will you be subjected to any punishment if cases are raised against you?
Any independent investigation would clear me of any charges, so I’m not concerned. Those who are concerned are those who committed crimes, which is not the case for me.
Have all cases against you now been cleared or are some still in the courts?
Not yet, still pending, but once the courts become independent, those charges will be automatically dropped.
And you don’t expect a repeat of having to go into exile again, as you have done three times before?
Including one time in Thailand.
You think that is it?
I think it’s finished now. I think the country is at a turning point, we have learnt lessons from the past. Hun Sen and I, we have to find a real and lasting solution for Cambodia.
And you think a real and lasting solution is possible?
Yes. It is necessary, and what is necessary must be made possible.
Does anything keep you awake at night with worry?
No. I’m very confident, I see this tide of young people coming. The new generation, 70-80 per cent of people, they want change, more modernity, justice, decent living conditions – which they can’t have under the current regime. So there will be change. I hope to be alive [to see it], not to get killed before [it happens].
If not Sam Rainsy, who else can lead this country?
Oh, many people, we are training them.
Do you have a No 2?
We won’t reveal their names, otherwise they would get killed too.
But you do have them on the list?
Yes, I have prepared one.
You don’t see any alternative to lead the country on the other side, the
I haven’t received any applications from them.
So you are preparing for the day when a new dawn will come to Cambodia and you will be right in the centre?
No. The Cambodian people will be at the centre.
Where will you stand in the landscape of the new Cambodia?
We will see, because this is not so important for me. The most important thing is to bring about a democratic change in Cambodia?
And you, personally, don’t have to be PM or lead the country?
That is not necessary. Any person can be replaced, but your country cannot be replaced. There’s only one country.
But I look at Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi, struggling against dictatorship for so long, like you, and now preparing to run for president?
I hope she can. When I met her last March she told me she was preparing to do so – to change the constitution to allow her to be a [presidential] candidate. … She said laws should not be written for or against any particular person but should apply to everybody. And she wants the balance of power to be equitable, acceptable, and not so the military have a big share of power. So I admire her. To some extent, we are following her path, to peacefully change the constitution, the law and the mindset of dictators.
I also get along very well with [Malaysian opposition leader] Anwar Ibrahim.
If the three of you – Anwar, Suu Kyi and you – got together, it would be quite a scene. Have you three met together?
Not all three, but last year in Kuala Lumpur I met both separately. I shared views with Anwar and he asked me to convey some ideas to Suu Kyi. I told Suu Kyi that Anwar and I would like the three of us, as opposition leaders in three Asean countries in democratic transition, to work together. And the Lady said yes.
For you and your friends in Asean who trying to change their respective countries, it’s going to be a big, big mission. But from what you’ve told me, you are very confident, and a lot of people in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia are wishing you the best of luck.
Thank you very much and I also wish Thailand the best of luck. I hope the Thai people will find national unity in the near future.