Interview with Saumura Tioulong on the deal between the government and the opposition in Cambodia

Di Matteo Angioli - 22 luglio 2014

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Interview by Matteo Angioli to Saumura Tioulong, MP for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), just before an agreement was signed in Phnom Penh between Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, and Sam Rainsy, leader of CNRP. The deal ends the political stalemate that blocked the country since the national elections in July 2013. After the elections opposition representatives started a boycott to denounce the fraudulent elections, accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). After a one-year boycott, in which CNRP MPs refused to take their 55 seats in the Parliament as well as to receive their salaries, preferring instead to protest in the squares, Saumura Tioulong talks to us about the most important points of the agreement.

Saumura, a few hours ago, an agreement has been reached between your party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party. Could you update us on its content?

This morning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, an agreement has been signed by the party in power, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen, ancient party leader of the Khmer Rouge, and our party, the CNRP. We end a political impasse that began almost one year ago, after the last national elections held in July 2013.

Could you describe the content of the deal? If I am not mistaken, one of the principal points concerns the independence of the Electoral Commission, plus other points related to fraud during the elections.

The principal point foresees that the party in power accepts to promote an electoral reform to make the system more impartial, to allow truly democratic elections and to put a stop to the sort of contestations we usually have after every election. Therefore, we succeeded in making the party in power accept the necessity of an electoral reform to allow for fairer elections in the future.

The second point agreed on with the party in power –and I remind you that it is made up of the former communists that were part of the Khmer Rouge – provides for a greater role for the Parliament. Due to the fraudulent elections in 2013, we took 55 seats while the party in power holds 68. Let’s clarify that these are the only two parties represented, there is no third party in the parliament. Despite having almost half of the seats, we have no rights and this is not normal for a party with such a parliamentary presence. We do not hold the Presidency or Vice-Presidency of any of the Parliamentary Commissions. The agreement foresees that we will obtain five Presidents and one Vice-President of the Commissions, whilst they keep 5 Presidents and the National Assembly’s Vice-Presidency.

The third important point of the agreement foresees media liberalisation, favouring the acquisition of licences. 17 years after our foundation, we will finally have a radio and a television.

We are under the impression that the one-year boycott you initiated was fundamental to reach these results. Don’t you think that a great Parliamentary participation could have helped to obtain more results?

No, I do not think that a greater Parliamentary engagement would have produced any results, as we did not have any real power in the Parliament. Indeed, this will be the first time ever an opposition party will take a Commission Presidency. This is incredible. Since 1998, the neo-communist party in power, successor to the Khmer Rouge, monopolized the political arena. We were not even permitted to know which bill would be discussed in Parliament the following day. They called us, gave us the bill that we could read in 30-40 minutes, and then we voted by hands. It is not possible to work in this way. That is why I think we could not have reached anything without this boycott. The deal we signed is far from perfect, most of our militants will not be happy with it. But still, in a negotiation when you ask for 100 and you receive 80 you should be satisfied. Also considering the pressure we had to cope with, since 7 of our MPs and one high-level militant had been arrested. So yes, we are MPs but if our rights are not respected, it is useless to hold this status.

How was Sam Rainsy welcomed after his recent return to Cambodia? And how do you respond to politicians and observers, for example The Economist, who criticize him for his absence from the country?

I find the critics who define themselves as experts of Cambodia more and more astonishing. When our party was named “Sam Rainsy Party”, they said our party was built upon a personality cult, in which decisions were taken by one person alone, like a dictator. Now that his collaborators are when he is abroad, when he has to leave, they say he is not in Cambodia. That is true, he has been abroad for almost four years because he was prosecuted by the political justice of Hun Sen. That is why he was in exile. Finally, he came back on 19 July last year and only observers, mainly foreign, criticized him, while the people welcomed him as a winner. The same happened this 19 July 2014, when he was back to try to fix the crisis. In democracy there is not just Sam Rainsy to set the terms. There are a million Sam Rainsys, millions of Cambodians who do not want to be overwhelmed.

What is the next step for the party to make, aside making sure the deal is respected?

The next step will be to take maximum advantage of the deal, which is good or bad depending on what we do with it and on how much the two parties will collaborate.

As an example, for the first time in Cambodian modern history, the opposition will see its status recognized, as it will have a democratic role of constructive and loyal opposition. Will we be able to take advantage of this opportunity? It will depend on us. The second challenge is to keep the attention of the international community, and the European Union in particular, on the situation. This is why I am in Brussels today. It is not just with an agreement that we will resolve the situation one time for all. We must keep an eye on the observance of the deal and this is why I call the attention of the European Union, which has always sustained the democratization’s efforts of many countries and of Cambodia in particular, being its first donator. I would like the EU to boost its help to Cambodia and help us from a technical and electoral point of view in this period of reform. The EU could play a very important role because of its political, economic and social, but also technical insight in Cambodia. I remember that during the 2008 elections the EU sent the greatest mission in terms of people and permanence in the country, in collaboration with many Cambodian representatives that worked with a great number of experts. After this collaboration a Report indicating the necessary was issued and made public. At this point the EU should use this document as a basis to improve the Cambodian electoral system and turn it into an instrument which all the people could rely on.

Thank you Saumura, good luck and we hope to see you in occasion of the second conference on the Reason of State and the Rule of Law that we will organize shortly, after the first session in which you partook.

And I shall say it was very interesting. I am sure I will be able to participate also next time.

Translation: Barbara Pianese