- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Time, Sam Rainsy believes, is on his side.

The one-time international banker, who is now the most outspoken critic of longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, predicted in an interview that his Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) will emerge as the Southeast Asian nation's leading opposition party after the July general election.

In a wide-ranging discussion last month in a Phnom Penh hotel lobby, Mr. Sam Rainsy talked about the declining fortunes of the royalist National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), what he called the corruption of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), relations with China and the United States, and shifting attitudes as Cambodia struggles to come to terms with the deadly misrule of the Khmer Rouge.

"It is like evolution," Mr. Sam Rainsy said of his party's steadily increasing vote share, which reached 17 percent in February's commune elections.

The more than 1 million young Cambodians casting their first ballots in 2003, more urban and educated than their parents, will refuse to accept Cambodia's endemic poverty, crime and lack of opportunity, he predicted.

"The grandfather votes for FUNCINPEC, the father votes for CPP, and the child votes for Sam Rainsy," he said.

FUNCINPEC, a royalist party headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, saw its vote total drop from 32 percent in the 1998 general election to 22 percent in February. The party is the junior partner in the coalition government dominated by Hun Sen.

If he does emerge as the country's biggest opposition force, Mr. Sam Rainsy could pose the sharpest challenge to the prime minister's 17 years in power.

"In the world you have Fidel Castro, you have Hun Sen, you have Saddam Hussein and maybe some African leaders, very authoritarian African leaders, [who] have been in power for more than 20 years," Mr. Sam Rainsy said. "I think we will have to put an end to this.

"I am suspicious of people who stick to power for decades and they have to use any means in order to remain in power. For people like that, power means impunity, because if they lost power they would lose everything."

Hun Sen served in the Khmer Rouge forces, but has long claimed he was just an ordinary soldier in the genocidal regime.

But Mr. Sam Rainsy argued that the Khmer Rouge connections of the prime minister and other top CPP officials undermine the government in its lengthy standoff with the United Nations involving an international tribunal to investigate the Cambodian "Killing Fields."

"Suppose in Germany in 1945, even though Hitler is dead, you still have [Hermann] Goering, [Heinrich] Himmler and others still in power. Would they accept a Nuremberg trial?" Mr. Sam Rainsy asked.

"So long as Hun Sen, [Senate President] Chea Sim and the present CPP leaders are in power, [we can] never hope to have any fair trial, any credible trial of the Khmer Rouge," he insisted. "The U.N. is right to withdraw from this travesty of justice that Hun Sen wants to implement."

Mr. Sam Rainsy said the government's argument that a trial could prove destabilizing domestically amounted to "blackmail" designed to protect Hun Sen's former comrades and the Chinese government, which had backed the Pol Pot regime.

Mr. Sam Rainsy added that he was prepared to accept an international tribunal operating outside Cambodia to investigate the Khmer Rouge rule, in which an estimated 1.7 Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979.

On foreign policy, Mr. Sam Rainsy said he backed better relations with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, but that the Hun Sen government had tilted too far toward China at the expense of better ties with the United States.

"China can never provide the same amount of assistance, of the same quality as the West," he said. He accused Beijing of using Cambodia as a through point for illegal immigration and other illicit activities and of seeking to build relations with Cambodian and other regional states to counter growing U.S. influence.

"We need the presence of the U.S. to counterbalance the power of China, which is pushing very hard," Mr. Sam Rainsy said.

The SRP leader identified corruption and its effects on the struggling economy as the biggest domestic issues facing Cambodia.

"Here is the rule of the gun and the rule of money," he said. "I would replace the rule of the gun and the rule of money with the rule of law and its implementation in all sectors, all fields."

The International Monetary Fund estimated that Cambodia's gross domestic product grew by 5.3 percent last year, better than many analysts had forecast. But the government's ability to press forward with needed reforms has been cast in doubt by the pervasive corruption and the power of entrenched interests who stand to lose from economic liberalization.

In an interview conducted at Phnom Penh's international airport, FUNCINPEC's Prince Ranariddh said his priority issue for the 2003 elections will be eradicating poverty.

Cambodia, the prince said, "is a very rich country, but the people still are very poor." He said the government should stress agro-industry, tourism and very light industry even as it tackles the corruption problem.

He offered only mild criticism of the government, crediting the CPP-FUNCINPEC coalition government with bringing the "peace and stability" essential to the creation of "a real democratic liberalism."

"I think if I do have any criticism [of the CPP], it is that Cambodians, as I said, continue to be so poor in a country which is so rich."

Given his criticisms of the government's commitment to democracy, Mr. Sam Rainsy was asked if he fears the government may move to curb his outspokenness.

The SRP leader said he was Hun Sen's "democratic alibi," the opposition critic who is preserved as proof to outsiders that Cambodia is a democracy.

But Mr. Sam Rainsy said his supporters had been harassed and killed, and that the situation was different in the Cambodian countryside, far from the downtown hotel lobby where he was interviewed.

"People get killed, arrested, harassed, intimidated, but they find that, 'Oh, Sam Rainsy is free,'" he said.

"You should not be fooled by that."

James Zumwalt is a retired Marine veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars who has interviewed Prime Minister Hun Sen on a previous trip to Cambodia.

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