An open letter to Sam Rainsy

[This was distributed in both English and a Khmer translation by the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit. The English version appeared in the online newspaper Cambodian Herald on 15 March 2012. The Khmer translation appeared the same day in the newspapers Kampuchea Thmey and Koh Santepheap.]

Dear Mr. Rainsy,

Not being a Cambodian, I would not normally comment publicly on Cambodian political issues. However, since your “Appeal”, which has been circulating on the internet recently, is directly addressed to international opinion, it seems acceptable for a foreigner like me to comment.

I am not a parliamentarian, and therefore I am not eligible to join the “International Parliamentary Committee for Democratic Elections in Cambodia”. But, even if I were a parliamentarian, I would not be signing up. I would like to explain why.

For a start, the name of your committee implies that Cambodia does not currently have democratic elections, something that is simply untrue. I have been resident in Cambodia for a dozen years. During that time, all direct elections (for the National Assembly and for commune/sangkat councils) have been extensively observed by foreign and domestic observers. While of course not finding the proceedings flawless, the overwhelming majority of observers in all cases have found that the election results reflected the intentions of the voters; they were democratic.

Secondly, I think it is bad practice for foreign parliamentary bodies to intervene in any country’s governmental processes unless that country is highly dictatorial and lacking in most basic freedoms. This is clearly not the situation of Cambodia, which has a vibrant press and five different parties represented in the National Assembly.

It is unfortunately easy for a body like the European Parliament to be swayed by one-sided accounts of the situation in a country with which most of its members have little familiarity. For example, some might not realise that while your party is indeed the second largest in the National Assembly, in the last election it won a national total of 21.9%, the same percentage it won in 2003 (you can say your vote increased, but only because the total number of voters increased). Those are not figures likely to strike terror into the heart of a governing party that won 58.1% of the total vote in 2008.

Thirdly, I find your description of your parliamentary difficulties contrary to what I believe to be reality. You write that you were “unconstitutionally expelled” from the National Assembly in 1995, 2005 and 2011. As far as I can see, in each case your expulsion was in accordance with the constitution and relevant laws:

a. In 1995, you were removed because you were no longer a member of the party, FUNCINPEC, under whose name you had been elected.

b. In 2005, the National Assembly removed you after you were convicted and sentenced for criminal defamation. Furthermore, you neglect to mention that your absence from Cambodia to avoid the court’s sentence lasted only two months, because Prime Minister Hun Sen asked and received a royal pardon for you. (I notice that your April 2011 version of this appeal omits any reference to your 2005 expulsion. Did it not seem so serious a year ago?)

c. The National Assembly voted to remove you in 2011 after you had lost all your appeals against your conviction for criminally removing border posts that had been placed by the joint Cambodian-Vietnamese border committee. You call these convictions “political charges”, but can you cite any country in the world where parliamentarians or anyone else is allowed at will to rip up border posts placed by a duly constituted border commission?

And, according to news reports, you have continued advocating such lawless behaviour. For example, the Cambodia Dailyreported on 24 October 2011 that, in a video link from Paris, you told 200 members of your party in Phnom Penh: “You have to gather with me to uproot 300 more markers. I appeal to all Khmer people to join together and walk along the border to uproot 300 markers …” What is the point of having democratic elections if a minority can veto the actions of the elected government? It seems to me that in this case it was, not the prosecution, but the crime, that was “politically motivated”.

This relates to a fourth problem I have with your Appeal: your attitude to democracy. To you, democracy seems to mean the right to impose your ideas or policies, in disregard of the expressed will of the majority. This was most grotesquely apparent after the 2003 National Assembly elections. As you will recall, the Cambodian People’s Party won 73 seats, FUNCINPEC 26 and your Sam Rainsy Party 24. For the government under Prime Minister Hun Sen, this was a clear improvement on the previous National Assembly, in which the CPP held 64 seats.

Nevertheless, you and FUNCINPEC collaborated in an effort to deny the clearly expressed will of the majority. Taking advantage of the constitutional provision (since repealed) that required a two-thirds majority to approve a new government, you blocked the installation of a new government with Hun Sen as Prime Minister. This situation lasted for more than a year, until wiser heads finally prevailed within FUNCINPEC and ended the constitutional blockade. If it had been solely up to you, I suspect the government that Cambodians voted for in 2003 would never have taken office.

In short, your “International Parliamentary Committee” appears to be an attempt to entice gullible foreigners into intervening in Cambodia’s internal politics. That might seem easier than winning the votes of Cambodian citizens, but the latter is the only road to success in a democracy.

13 March 2012

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