Sam Rainsy is the former leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party. He stood down in February after Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed banning anyone convicted of a criminal offence from leading a political party. Rainsy has been the target of several lawsuits in Cambodia and has lived outside the country since 2015.
His replacement, Kem Sokha, was arrested and charged with treason in early September, prompting New Zealand Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee and other international leaders to express concern about the state of democracy in Cambodia.
The Asia Media Centre caught up with Rainsy when he visited New Zealand in September, to talk about the political situation in Cambodia.
What’s the political situation in Cambodia now?
There is a totalitarian drift. It’s very worrying. We had a military coup 20 years ago in 1997, but this year we had another coup – not a military but a constitutional coup. The fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution are suspended. The democratic institutions and mechanisms do not work; they are blocked. Our prime minister, Hun Sen, has seized all powers.
There is a very brutal crackdown, as evidenced by the arrest and detention of the leader of the opposition leader [Kem Sokha]. And there is only one opposition party. The unity of democratic opposition is a new phenomenon, the first time in Cambodia’s recent history. This has changed the political landscape and brought the opposition neck-to-neck with the ruling party, in spite of many election irregularities.
Had the  election been fair and honest – a real election, I mean – the democratic opposition would have won. That is why there is so much frustration. The people feel that the election did not reflect their will. That is why they call for a real election. This makes Hun Sen very afraid because Hun Sen knows that any real election would make him lose power.
What will happen with Kem Sokha?
I’m very concerned and worried about his fate. When you are in opposition, especially when you are in the position of leader, there are three possibilities: Either you are assassinated or there are assassination attempts; or you are jailed; or you a forced into exile.
Why are you in New Zealand?
First of all, meeting with friends within the Cambodian communities in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. And also meeting with New Zealanders who care about the situation in Cambodia.
In Auckland, I met with the mayor, Phil Goff. He’s a good friend of the Cambodian community. Many Cambodians campaigned for him for many, many terms. So he feels concerned about the situation in Cambodia.
How would you describe New Zealand-Cambodia relations?
Excellent. The Cambodian community here are happy people. They have found a new home.
As a Cambodian from Cambodia, I’m very grateful to New Zealand – to the people and government of New Zealand – for helping Cambodian refugees many, many years ago settle in this country. This country is a land of freedom and full of opportunities. I can see with my own eyes that they are very successful.
But still they continue to think about their native country, and they mobilise. They collect money to support the fight for democracy there. I think they are doing a good job to be good citizens of New Zealand, but also not to forget the land of their ancestors.
NZ Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee issued a statement expressing concern over Kem Sokha’s arrest. What's the role of the international community in this situation?
Cambodia is heavily dependent on international assistance, international trade, foreign direct investment, on markets for goods exported from Cambodia. We are dependent on loans given by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. So Cambodia is very heavily dependent on internationalised systems. We cannot afford to ignore any call from the international community for the organisation of real elections to ensure that democracy is still alive.
The European parliament representing 27 countries on 14 September adopted a very strong resolution on Cambodia, calling for the release of Kem Sokha, and also condemning the Hun Sen regime for the crackdown, and warning there will be consequences if they don’t back off, if the situation does not return to normal.
In the US, there is a Cambodian caucus in Congress, a bipartisan grouping of congressmen and senators who closely follow the situation in Cambodia, and who are pushing the issue, although very difficult, with the Trump administration. They try to move the administration, to push the administration to take a firmer stance against Hun Sen.
Has being in exile and meeting overseas Cambodian communities changed your perspective on the political situation?
First, I am very encouraged by the fact that Cambodian-New Zealanders, Cambodian-Australians, Cambodian-Americans, Cambodian-French don’t forget their country. They still think about their country, they mobilise, they support the democratic movement in Cambodia.
And the diaspora is relatively strong – one million-strong. It’s a potential force, not only in terms of numbers but in terms of skill. They are very qualified, having lived, studied and worked in industrial countries, so they have many skills that would be very useful to help the development of Cambodia. They are a kind of role model for Cambodians in Cambodia. They look up to them as their hope for their country in their future. So, there are democratic forces inside Cambodia, but also outside Cambodia, to help put the democratisation process on the right track.
What else do you observe about the situation in Cambodia?
Hun Sen is moving closer and closer to China. Hun Sen’s anti-Americanism is reminiscent of the Cold War. It is a cheap way for Hun Sen to please the Chinese. The Chinese massively invest in Cambodia. They are a building military, naval base [deep-water port] in Cambodia. This affects the balance in the region. It can be very dangerous.
Hun Sen, for strategic and financial reasons, strongly supports China. Hun Sen prevents solidarity among ASEAN nations. He aligns himself with China. This makes many countries in the region feel concerned because there is the international law of the sea, the freedom of trade, et cetera, and China has been very assertive. Hun Sen does not pay any consideration with those factors. This raises concerns not only in Cambodia, but in the region, possibly with many powers that feel concerned with the assertiveness of China is the region.
Do you think the relationship with China has made it easier for Hun Sen to take the measures he has taken?
Yes, because Hun Sen knows the crackdown isolates him from the Western democratic countries. So he moves closer to China in order to have more support, in case the West reduces assistance to Cambodia. He will compensate with an increase in support from China.
China turns a blind eye not only to human rights considerations, but also to any concern regarding corruption. Government corruption is systemic [in Cambodia]. If Cambodia is, according to the World Bank, one of the world’s poorest countries, it is also, according to Transparency International, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Sam Rainsy spoke to the Asia Media Centre at the Wellington Cambodian Buddhist Temple in September. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
– Asia Media Centre