Meet the Candidates: Sam Rainsy

During my three years in Cambodia I maintained a personal blog that I used to keep in touch with family, process my experiences, and share my learnings. The following is part of a series of blog posts that I wrote as elections drew near in 2008.

The first candidate presented is the leader of the established opposition party, Sam Rainsy of the Sam Rainsy Party. Mr. Sam has a reputation in Cambodia of being something of a slanderer; well actually, in point of fact, he also has the criminal record to back it up. Since he was expelled the FUNCINPEC party and thus his government position as Minister of Finance in 1994, Mr. Sam has been the most outspoken surviving critic of what passes for democracy in Cambodia. Despite constant threats and several attempts on his life, Sam Rainsy has only grown more bold in confronting the current powers that be. No one doubts that Mr. Sam is driven and brave, the question is why is he so driven? Two weeks ago, a Cambodian told me his views which sum it up nicely, “I’m not sure about Sam Rainsy, but he is the only one who has never made a deal with the CPP.”

The Sam family is not a new one to Cambodian politics. The grandfather of Sam Rainsy was a prominent politician in the 1940s. Sam Sary, the father of Sam Rainsy, had been a close aide to King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s and was eventually appointed to the post of Deputy Prime Minister and later Ambassador to England. The leader of the Democrat Party at the time, Keng Vannsak, who was thrown into prison following the 1955 election, remembers a darker side to the relationship between the King and Sam Sary. He said that Sam Sary was “the evil genius behind the repression” and a “bestial man” who “as an investigating magistrate in the 1940s, had beaten suspects to death with his own hands.” He further claims that “after Sihanouk decided to use strong-arm tactics, Sary handed out money and arms to hire ruffians to come and break our meetings.” Regardless of the nature of their relationship, Sam Sary was engulfed in a scandal while Ambassador involving a female house-servant, Soeung Son Maly, who he had impregnated and then who went to the London police because he was beating her. The British Press latched onto the story and Norodom Sihanouk, as he details vividly in his memoirs, felt deeply embarrassed and betrayed. He immediately recalled the Ambassador from his post, but before returning to Cambodia Sam Sary issued a statement in which he explained that it was a Cambodian custom to beat women. The King was mortified by this explanation and how it presented his country to the world. On his return, Sam Sary found that he had fallen out of favor with the King. Outraged at being so discarded, he joined the many who had a feud with Sihanouk; starting his own newspaper in which he openly criticized the King and attempting to start his own political party. In January 1959, Sihanouk gave a speech claiming that he knew of US intelligence plots to overthrow him and a week later Sam Sary fled to Thailand. He remained there until he mysteriously vanished in 1962. Many loyal to the King claim that he was killed by his CIA patrons while others claim that it had been Sihanouk who ordered Sam Sary’s death.

I spent most of last Saturday searching for Sam Rainsy’s autobiography but, perhaps not unsurprisingly, it was not to be found in Phnom Penh. Certain details of his life, including much of his early life and his time in France, is not common knowledge and I know little of it, so this periods of his life may be a bit sparse.

Sam Rainsy was born in Phnom Penh in 1949, his mother, In Em, was the first Cambodian woman to complete High School and pass the “baccalaureate” exam. He moved to France in 1965, where he studied economics and then worked for various French companies. In 1971, he married Tioulong Saumura who now serves alongside him as a member of Parliament. He and his wife remained in France during the turbulent war years and only returned to Cambodia in 1992. Long a supporter of Prince Norodom Ranariddh on the international front, Sam Rainsy was a founding member of the then opposition party FUNCINPEC and was elected to parliament for Siem Reap province in the 1993 elections. In those elections, FUNCINPEC was the clear victor but the threat of violence forced them to form a coalition government with the ruling CPP as a lesser partner. As the new government coalesced, Sam Rainsy was appointed Minister of Finance. In his dry but insightful book, Cambodia After the Khmer Rogue, Evan Gottesman shares his opinion, based on his years of researching Cambodian government and political documents, that FUNCINPEC fell into corruption almost immediately upon joining into the coalition government. He states fairly bluntly that “Most FUNCINPEC officials were more concerned with satisfying their superiors than with changing the way the country was governed.” In effect, FUNCINPEC at the time was interested in obtaining the absolute political power held by the CPP not in changing the way the political system was arranged. Gottesman holds up Sam Rainsy as an exception to this. During his term as Minister, Sam Rainsy pushed for a transparent approval process for foreign investors, supported anti-corruption laws, and complained openly about corruption in the government, even criticizing Hun Sen. Both Prime Ministers, seeking to amass political influence not curb corruption, came to view him as an annoyance. In 1994 he was removed from his position in the Ministry of Finance and a few months later he was expelled from the FUNCINPEC party.

In 1995, Sam Rainsy formed the Khmer Nation Party and began to rally voices of opposition against the coalition government. On March 30th, 1997 a KNP rally led by Sam Rainsy was subject to a grenade attack which killed sixteen people and wounded nearly a hundred more, including an American. Sam Rainsy himself was saved from death only by the sacrifice of a bodyguard who threw himself atop the politician. Within hours, Prime Minister Hun Sen reacted by ordering Rainsy’s arrest. He claimed that Sam Rainsy had thrown the grenades himself, killing his own supporters, in order to arose sympathy for the KNP and to frame the CPP. The demand was so outrageous that, for once, even the Cambodian Police ignored it.

Rich Garella and Eric Pape were westerners in the Cambodia at the time and maintain a website entitled A Tragedy of No Importance sharing their view of the 1997 grenade attack.

In the months leading up to the 1998 election, a clever legal maneuver involving election registration allowed a Khmer Nation Party defector to effectively steal the party’s name and claim that the entire KNP had defected with him. Afraid of a similar technique being used again, Sam Rainsy gave the now nameless party his own name to ensure that no defection save his own could again steal the party’s name.

As detailed in my Meet the Candidates prelude, opposition party leaders during the 1998 elections were subjected to widespread threats, assault, and even murder. The former Khmer Nation Party gained fourteen percent of the vote, though small compared to opposition hopes and independent pre-election estimates, it was a foothold into the government. Sam Rainsy was elected to parliament for Kompong Cham province. He remained a weak but constant voice of protest in years leading up to the 2003 elections, living up to his party’s emblem, a single lit candle.

On April 26th, 2003, King Norodom Sihanouk cleared the name of Sam Sary of all trespasses and acknowledged the contributions of Sam Rainsy’s father to Cambodian Independence. This was widely taken as sign of political favor, Sihanouk shifting to support Sam Rainsy over his son, Norodom Ranariddh. The declaration negated personal attacks that Ranariddh had leveled against Sam Rainsy’s family. Sam Rainsy has met with Sihanouk on a number of occasions since his return to Cambodia in 1992 and this acknowledgment signified, in my own words, that “the ‘sins’ of the father were forgiven”.

On March 29th 2003, the Sam Rainsy Party presented an updated version of the party’s political platform. A summarized version of the platform is presented here and many of the steps have been adopted, as shall be seen, by other opposition parties in the 2008 elections.

To promote an effective government:
– Ensuring a clear separation between the State and the ruling party, and preventing State revenues from being diverted into the ruling party’s coffers.
To fight against corruption:
– Adopting an anti-corruption law, and establishing a national counter corruption commission.
– Imposing a declaration of assets and their sources by all high-ranking government officials.
– Re-examining all public contracts in view of ensuring legality and protecting national interest.
– Investigating all parcels of land of 100 hectares and over to verify legitimacy of acquisitions.
– Pursuing to recover and return to the Khmer people all stolen State funds transferred overseas by corrupt government officials.
To help improve living conditions:
– Providing modern health care to all the poor, free of charge, to help cut the currently appalling death rate.
– Setting up a minimum salary of 400,000 riels (or $100) per month for all public servants.
– Raising the minimum wage for factory workers and company employees to 280,000 riels (or $70) per month for a 44-hour week.
– Reducing the current petrol retail price of 2,500 riels per litre to 1,500 riels (same level as in Thailand).
To reduce the gap between the rich and the poor:
– Establishing a wealth tax system.
To defend farmers:
– Prohibiting confiscation of land, or removal from land that has been occupied for more than five years.
– Reviewing thoroughly land confiscation in any form since 1989 up to now. If the confiscation is deemed illegal and unjust, the land will be returned to its rightful owner.
– Issuing land titles, free of charge, to all farmers who have no documents in order to certify their ownership of the land they are living on.
To promote democracy and justice:
– Requesting the United Nations to immediately create a Khmer Rouge Tribunal outside Cambodia.
– Redistributing frequencies for radio and television broadcasts without bias.
– Granting Khmer citizens living overseas the right to vote, like their counterparts at home, by providing voting facilities abroad.
To protect the environment:
– Revising or canceling all forest concessions, and taking further initiatives to end deforestation.
To fight criminal or immoral activities
– Stopping the construction of casinos and the development of the gambling industry controlled by the Mafia.
To defend Cambodia’s territorial integrity:
– Abolishing border treaties the previous regime signed with Vietnam in 1979, 1982, 1983, and 1985.
– Requesting the Paris Peace Conference to reconvene in order to demand a respect for the 1991 Paris Agreements in relation to Cambodia’s territorial integrity.

For a year following the 2003 elections, Sam Rainsy and his former leader, Norodom Ranariddh, refused to join with the CPP in coalition and delayed the formation of a government. There was talk of a coalition of opposition parties and even an alliance for a time. Then, abruptly, Norodom Ranariddh led FUNCINPEC in joining once more into a coalition government with the CPP and his betrayer, Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy declared that the Prince had been bribed and had sacrificed the well being of the nation for his own personal gain. He accused the new coalition government of corruption.

On January 22, 2004, during the Chinese New Year celebrations, the charismatic leader of the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Chea Vichea, was assassinated. Chea Vichea had strong ties to the Sam Rainsy Party. As detailed in the documentary The Plastic Killers, which is a poor translation of the Khmer title which is closer to ‘the manufactured killers’, two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were arrested for the murder within days despite both having solid alibis. On the March 22, 2004, the case’s Investigating Judge, Hing Thirith, threw out the charges against the two men, citing a lack of evidence and questionable police credibility. The next day, Hing Thirith was removed from his position in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and his ruling was later overturned. On August 1st, 2005, the two men were found guilty in a hearing in which no witnesses or forensic evidence were presented. They were sentenced to twenty years in prison and ordered to pay $5,000 dollars of compensation each to the victim’s family. Chea Vichea’s family refused to accept the compensation, stating that they did not believe that the two men were the true murders. I met one of the men’s wife on the street in Phnom Penh near the Olympic Stadium about a year ago, she was handing out papers about her husband and begging people to help him. She had a weary but inexhaustible strength about her, the kind that comes only from desperation.

Sam Rainsy claimed that officials in the government had ordered the murder of Chea Vichea and were now placing the blame on innocent men who had nothing to do with the murder. He went so far as to directly accused Hun Sen of involvement.

In February 2005, the National Assembly stripped parliamentary immunity from three SRP members of parliament; Sam Rainsy himself, Chea Poch, and Cheam Channy.

Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia stating fears of imprisonment without trial for the charges of “defamation” laid against him for his claims of “corruption” against other members of the government. He was tried in absentia in December 2005 for defamation and was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and to pay a total of $14,000 USD in fines and compensation.

Chea Poch, a representing Prey Veng province, was also accused of “defamation” and fled the country, only to return to face the charges leveled him.

Cheam Channy had faced the threat of his parliamentary immunity being revoked before in 2003. In December 2002, the leader of a group of villagers resisting “land grabbing” in Kompong Chhnang Province, Moeun Mel, was being held on charges of “defamation” for denouncing the local authority for “abuse” and “corruption”. Hearing of this, parliamentarian Cheam Channy lead the local villagers in protest to the court. There, he found that the judge and the other officials of the court had fled the marching villagers, leaving Moeun Mel unattended in an abandoned courtroom. In the new year, the National Assembly began to discuss removing Cheam Channy’s parliamentary immunity and punishing him for “obstructing court proceedings”. In May, Norodom Sihanouk defended Cheam Channy in a public letter to the National Assembly President, his son Norodom Ranariddh: “In my humble opinion, stripping a National Assembly member of his parliamentary immunity is a very serious case. A National Assembly member is stripped of his immunity only when the concerned parliamentarian has committed a fault pertaining to a crime, or has betrayed the nation. The action deployed in defending a group of citizens is not a crime.”

However, Cheam Channy was not arrested by the Municipal Court on charges of “obstructing court proceedings” for leading those villagers in 2002. He was arrested by the Military on charges of “an offence against the order of the Co- Commander-In-Chief of the Cambodian Armed Forces, an offence of conspiracy to create an armed group for organised crime, and an offence of fraud”. These charges were later summarized as “organising an illegal army”. In point of fact, Cheam Channy was a member of the Sam Rainsy Party’s Committee No. 14. This committee’s charter is to act as a “shadow ministry” assigned the task of monitoring corruption and abuse throughout the government; the members of the group are armed with pencil and paper. Cheam Channy was seized the same day that his immunity was revoked and held without trial for six months. The European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding that the Cambodian government “immediately and unconditionally” release the parliamentarian. Instead, he was sentenced by the Military after what many Human Rights Groups claim was a show trial to seven years in prison.

This revocation of parliamentary immunity of key opposition leaders was met with strong international condemnation. Despite this, Cheam Channy remained in solitary confinement in the Phnom Penh Military Prison until he, Chea Poch, and Sam Rainsy received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni in February 2006. Sam Rainsy returned to the country within a week of receiving the pardon.

In April of this year, while giving a speech at the Choeung Ek killing fields, Sam Rainsy claimed that several key members of the Cambodian government were former Khmer Rogue. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has since made a request to the National Assembly to once again strip Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity so that a defamation and disinformation suit can be leveled against him. The editor of a newspaper affiliated with Sam Rainsy Party newspaper, Dam Sith, was arrested on a related of charge of defamation and disinformation for quoting the remarks in an article. The arrest of Dam Sith sparked a flare of international protest and after a week in prison he was released, during which time Sam Rainsy proclaimed, “Let me take his place in prison.” After a week of imprisonment, Dam Sith was released on bail. The opposition claim that his arrest was to intimidate journalists.

Not waiting for his parliamentary immunity to be removed, on July 8th, Sam Rainsy went to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to present evidence supporting his claims. I don’t know if it was a result of this visit, but Hor Namhong, one of those accused of being former Khmer Rogue, quietly dropped his defamation charges against Dam Sith.

On July 11th, Khim Sambo, a journalist for Dam Sith’s newspaper, and his twenty-one year old son were killed in broad daylight in Phnom Penh near the Olympic Stadium. The brazen killing has cowed many sympathetic to the opposition and caused an uproar of outrage from international observers and the opposition party. I wish it were to make amends for abandoning justice in its 1997 investigation but surprisingly the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation offered to assist in investigating this murder on July 15th.

In spite of this dual murder, this election has been spared widespread violence comparable to that seen in past elections. Unfortunately, there’s good reason to expect that this is more to guard foreign business interests than human rights and Cambodian democracy.

As the election nears, the CPP continues to lay charges against the Sam Rainsy Party and its members, claiming, for example, that they threaten and physically attack defectors, that Committee No. 14 is an illegal army, and that the 1997 “coup” in which Hun Sen crushed his Co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh was orchestrated by the Sam Rainsy Party and FUNCINPEC.

Popular support for the Sam Rainsy Party has weakened with several high level defections to the CPP, Hun Sen openly promising high level positions in the government to any defectors from the opposition party, and with the advent of the Human Rights Party which is cutting into the SRP support base. Despite this, the Sam Rainsy Party remains strong on several fronts, most notably with its youth movement of over 180,000 registered people under the age of thirty. It should be noted that Sam Rainsy, like most Cambodians, is unapologetically racist in regards to the Vietnamese who he refers to as “Youn”.

My Opinion:
Originally I was very skeptical of Sam Rainsy and his political party, that skepticism remains but it has been greatly weakened. In a country of power-hungry megalomaniacs, Sam Rainsy is at the least a megalomaniac of a different sort, one who represents himself with a simple candle on a blue background and pulls worn wooden carts at political events instead of sitting up on a golden throne. Perhaps, he’s more than that, maybe he really is a genuine voice calling for justice. I’m reluctant to believe in a political leader, my trust suffered a great blow with the fall of Ralph Nader, but maybe here on the edge Democracy still produces leaders of quality and maybe here is a man that can be believed in. Imperfect but perhaps good.


I don’t know. Is he like Nader, a man obsessed with his own mythic role as the last champion of good in a corrupt land? Is he like his father, caught up in a personal vendetta against the powers that betrayed him? Or, is he what so many believe him to be… I find that my views agree with the Cambodian I spoke with two weeks ago, “I’m not sure about Sam Rainsy, but he is the only one who has never made a deal with the CPP.” It’s not light praise to say that someone in Cambodian politics has never made a deal with Hun Sen.

I’ve decided to head into the capital this weekend while some other foreigners fearfully leave the country to watch the elections from the safety of a vacation spot in Thailand or Vietnam. I want to see what is to be seen.

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