Cambodian Politics

The return

On November 9, Cambodia’s opposition leaders have promised to return to the Kingdom to take the fight to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party. We spoke to senior CNRP politician Mu Sochua about her fast-approaching date with destiny

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because the Cambodian people need to know what to expect on November 9.

Written By:
October 22, 2019
The return
This picture taken on October 5, 2017 shows Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy party leader Mu Sochua gesturing during an interview at an undisclosed location in Bangkok. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Cambodia’s exiled opposition leaders have promised to come back to the Kingdom on November 9 despite repeated government threats to arrest them. In the months leading up to their return, dozens of CNRP activists and former politicians have been detained by the authorities amid fears that they are preparing to launch mass demonstrations to greet CNRP president Sam Rainsy and his supporters.

Southeast Asia Globe spoke to senior politician Mu Sochua about her hopes and fears for November 9 – and what kind of country she hopes to build if their last-ditch push for democracy succeeds against all odds.

We’re getting quite close to November 9. Could you talk about you’re feeling in anticipation of the return?
We’re on track with our plans. Now, we’re in Asia – many places in Asia. Mr Rainsy is making his last visits to European countries. From the diaspora, they continue to sign up to join the return. So we are moving ahead. We have very clear signals from inside the country that even though there are arrests and forced confessions and forced detentions, the grassroots members are staying very strong. In terms of officials who were elected in 2017, we had over 5,000. Compared to the number of arrests, it’s significant. In terms of the population, we have very clear signals that they are ready to come out and join the return.

And in terms of the migrant workers in South Korea on Sunday, they’ve had big rallies. In Thailand, I can confirm that they are ready. The numbers, I can say will be in the tens of thousands that we know of at this point – and the number is growing. They want change, and the ninth of November will be a new beginning in the fight for democracy in Cambodia.

Now I know that the Hong Kong protests that we talked about last time we spoke have been receiving a huge amount of international coverage, with escalating violence and no sign of a peaceful settlement in sight. What kind of lessons are you taking from those protests in Hong Kong in terms of what you would like to see in Cambodia upon your return?
Cambodia belongs to all of us. What Cambodia can learn from Hong Kong is that – ownership. And that all of us, each one of us is a leader. We cannot just rely on one leader, or two leaders in building democracy or supporting and protecting human rights and freedom. Freedom is about people standing up and freedom is about learning to take risks. 

Cambodian migrant workers carry their belongings after arriving at Poipet city in Banteay Meanchey province. Cambodia’s opposition leaders have promised to lead a wave of migrant workers back into the Kingdom on November 9. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP

You mentioned this idea of not relying on one leader, but having very much a grassroots push for freedom and the rights of every Cambodian. What do you say to critics who have accused the CNRP of relying too heavily on the fame of its leadership rather than outlining a clear political platform on which to build support?
If we didn’t have any political platform, I don’t think we could have gotten 43-4 percent in the 2013 and 2017 elections. The platform is very clear – in terms of economic growth, economic development, building human resources in Cambodia, building its own capacity in terms of generating decent employment, sustainable employment and sustainable growth for Cambodia. It’s about protecting economic and social justice and reforms of the justice system, which is badly needed.

In terms of agriculture, this is a country that relies heavily on agriculture, so our policy on land for the people, equality in terms of access in terms of resources and sustaining our natural resources. At the local level, we laid out policies of decentralisation, of good governance and the role of the local authorities, especially the commune councils, to develop their own plans – and using the national budget, at least half a million per commune, for rural development. All of that has been very well expressed.

We have two leaders who are very popular, but we know that in terms of fighting for democracy, just relying on popularity cannot build grassroots democracy – it cannot sustain it. It has to be on a very clear stance of the value of freedom, and human rights, and the dignity of the people – the ownership of the people in terms of resources, and their contribution to development. That’s how we build democracy. 

One of the main charges levelled against Hun Sen and his family, as well as other senior CPP leaders, is that they are the head of this vast web of ownership over crucial parts of the nation’s economy, and that they have put into place a system of patronage that permeates down to the local level. How do you go about dismantling such an entanglement of private family interests and the material and productive powers of a nation?
First, it’s political will – and we’ve demonstrated our political will. Second, a top priority is rebuilding and reforming national institutions into independent and neutral institutions that serve the interests of the people. For example the judiciary, the military, the police. If you take out Hun Sen’s family, you take out Hun Sen, that is already eliminating this culture of nepotism and the Hun Sen family branch. 

And there are thousands and thousands of very capable technocrats, very well-trained young people – they should be put in place to manage projects on the strength of their own merits and their own values. They are very hungry to perform and to contribute to each sector. I think by eliminating the Hun Sen family system, the structure, the cronies, that alone will open up many opportunities and put Cambodia on the right track. 

epa06724306 Ouk Pich Samnang (L) and Meach Sovannara (R), activists of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), sit in a police truck as they arrive at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 10 May 2018. Photo: MAK REMISSA/EPA-EFE

To change tack for a moment, I know that more recently you’ve been quite critical of the extent of Chinese investment in Cambodia – are you concerned at all that by taking such a strong stance, it may strain your relationship with such an important economic partner if there is a transition of power?
I don’t think so. Look at [Malaysian Prime Minister] Dr Mahathir [Mohamad], for example, who is able to negotiate a cleaner contract and relationship with China. I think this is again where the international community fails to understand that only through democracy and protection of human rights and giving ownership to the people can give a strong message to China that we have rule of law that you must respect in our country, we have our social values and our culture and you must respect that. 

I don’t think that China is that powerful if we hold onto our own values and we’re not desperate to get loans from China. The development that China is proposing through their Belt and Road Initiative is development that the majority of the people cannot benefit from. Because it’s not development building to sustain our resources or our culture or our economic base – it’s development that totally destroys what is the base for economic growth and especially development at the grassroots. And when we are in power, we will propose to China our own development – of course we will take their Belt and Road, however within our own definition of Belt and Road and our own definition of economic growth for Cambodia.

Are you concerned that the international community has made its peace with Cambodia as a state run by the CPP, and therefore wouldn’t take more drastic steps to generate that space to allow the CNRP to challenge that?
I think it’s totally wrong – this is how democracy fails. This is how we cannot reach the full implementation of the Paris Peace Accords, and the signatories have failed in terms of fulfilling their obligations. And we continue to appeal to the signatories to fulfil their obligations, which are to not work with a regime that continues to violate human rights, that continues to destroy democracy. Sanctions must be happening now. 

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been able to build grassroots democracy – there was hope. It was Hun Sen alone who destroyed this hope, and destroyed these steps towards democracy. I think it was very clear that the peaceful solutions that we are proposing should get full support.

A supporter of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) paints over the party logo at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh. Photo: TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

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