Cambodian risks death in fight for democracy

A leading dissident tells Stephen Vines how the Communists hi- jacked the government and corrupted the country
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The Independent Online
Hong Kong - Don't ask Sam Rainsy, Cambodia's leading dissident, for his address. "I am always moving about," he says with a shy smile. He does not say, until pressed, how dangerous it is to take on the government led by the former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen and Ranaridh Norodom, the son of King Sihanouk.

We spoke during his brief visit to Hong Kong where, as he freely admits, he is trying to add to his armour by remaining in the international limelight. News had just come through about a murderous attack on Ek Mongkul, one of Cambodia's best known journalists. He was shot three times on the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh.

So, how dangerous is it to lead the opposition in Cambodia these days? "Life is dangerous in Cambodia and political life is very dangerous," he says. "People who start opposition parties get shot, get killed; they get into prison."

Yet Cambodia was the country which was given more than $3bn (pounds 2bn) by the international community to create conditions for the holding of elections in 1993. Some 20,000 UN troops supervised the polls.

Sam Rainsy was among agroup of overseas Cambodian idealists who returned home to take part in the democratic experiment. Moreover, he returned on the winning side as a supporter of the royalist Funcinpec party which swept to victory and showed magnanimity by bringing into government the defeated former Communists, under the leadership of Hun Sen.

Mr Rainsy himself was Minister of Finance, serving alongside Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the King's half-brother, who was foreign minister and is now in exile again and facing trial for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

In the finance ministry Mr Rainsy saw at first hand how the people who won the election were sidelined by Hun Sen's men as the struggling infant democracy was submerged in a sea of corruption. "Hundreds of millions of dollars were taken from the government and given to individuals," he says.

Unsurprisingly, he was out within a year. His fall was widely seen as the end of a chance for clean government. He was also expelled from the National Assembly. Mr Rainsy is now public enemy number one of what he describes as the "terrorist government".

"The Communists are very clever in making cosmetic changes," he says. "When [they] lose power, as they did in the Eastern Europe, they had a strategy. One element of the strategy is to form coalition governments. They let non-Communists hold sensitive ministries, such as the economic portfolio, where they become unpopular, whereas the Communists seek control of the real centres of power, defence, police etc. So when people regret what's happening, they say the time of the Communists was not that bad.

"At the grass-roots level the Communists intimidate, threaten and even kill, so the . . . people are frightened. But at the top level they buy, they give the possibility to sign contracts and have a unique opportunity to get money. Hun Sen blackmails them, he buys their conscience."

Last November, Mr Rainsy formed the Khmer Nation Party, which has been declared illegal. He is focusing all his efforts on mobilising support for the election scheduled to take place in 1998, which he says is the "last chance" for Cambodia to get back on the path to freedom. But how can a free election take place in what he describes as a "terrorist state"?

Mr Rainsy is trying to get governments and international organisations to act as observers to ensure that the polls are free and fair. If this cannot be done his party will not run.

"The ruling coalition government will get 99.9 per cent of the vote," he says. "The world will judge how meaningless this election is and the world will ask what was the use of spending $3bn to create the same type of situation as before the 1993 election."