Interview: ‘We Didn’t Involve Ourselves in Playing Their Games’

Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha spoke with reporter Vuthy Huot of Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service on Wednesday on the results of elections on June 4 for rural commune and urban sangkat councils and council chiefs. The elections, seen as a bellwether for national elections in 2018, saw the CNRP, a party formed by the merger in 2012 of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, get nearly 12 times the number of commune chief posts than the two component parties had held prior to the vote.

RFA: What did the party do right during its campaign and on election day?

Kem Sokha: As our compatriots already know, the CNRP has overcome political heat over the past period which raised concerns and fears among our supporters. Not only has it been able to hold its position, but it was also able to move forward another step. What we have done right is, first, we properly set our goals which are based on the will of the people, meaning that our goals are not based on any delirious feeling of any individual or leader. As a leader, we don’t follow our feelings, but act based on the will of the people. The will of the people is that initially they had wanted us to unite together democrats and nationalists. And we did unite in 2012. This was a positive point as a stepping stone for reinvigorating our people’s hope after these hopes had been lost for quite a long period of time. In 1993, our citizens went to vote for change one time already. But they couldn’t sustain their hopes as they had been ruined. It was not until the recent time that after there was a merger between the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party that we have gathered our forces among democrats. This served as a crucial point when we made the right decision by uniting our forces.

Second, is due to our political maturity. We know how to be patient at some points. We didn’t use our feelings to react to situations, but instead worked strategically. Whatever they did against us, we were patient and when we didn’t involve ourselves in playing their games, we were able to focus on preparing our structure, candidates and political platform.

Third, we tried to conduct regular meetings with people in their localities. As per reports from various organizations, the CNRP lawmakers have been actively visiting their constituencies more often than [the ruling party]. Likewise, the CNRP activists also carried out more activities than the other side. These are the points that we have been doing right and we will continue to pursue them further.

RFA: What are the things that the CNRP should improve internally for the upcoming 2018 election?

Kem Sokha: We know that politically, we are correct. But as for some technical issues, we have not been thorough. For instance, we have yet to approach each commune or village level with proper statistics. During the campaign, we also did not visit people’s homes as often as the ruling party had done. We also have not taught the people how to mark their ballots properly. Another point, is related to our observers. Although we recruited them in large numbers, our training of them, both spiritually and materially, fell short due to time constraints. These are things we need to improve. Improvement means that for 2018, we still have time. We won’t wait until that day comes to recruit more observers. We have to do it from now. Following the election on June 4, I summoned all our party’s provincial leaders and lawmakers to an urgent meeting. We have already laid out our plan. Our immediate task is to urgently meet with our commune/sangkat chiefs so that they further understand their roles and our political stance and they can lead the nearly 500 communes/sangkat that we won right away. Moreover, we also have to train our elected commune/sangkat councilors so that they know better how to manage, and to lead well. I don’t think this is a difficult task. The most important thing is whether they already have their hearts ready for loving the nation and the people. Since we already have our hearts ready, we can just teach them the technical parts. We will request national and international organizations to join with us in providing training to our elected commune/sangkat councilors and chiefs. Another important issue is our observers. We need to train them to strengthen their spirit so that they will not be bought or be scared of threats, and will be technically ready. We will provide them with further training. We can’t just teach them one time and expect that they’ll understand everything. We have to teach them repeatedly.

RFA: What are the things that your party demands be improved from the outset, including on the government or National Election Commission side?

Kem Sokha: There are a lot of things that we demand be improved. Although no violence occurred in this election, there were other various issues of concern. We noticed that there were a lot of threats prior to the election. The courts or the NEC appeared not to undertake any concrete measures against such threats even though they prompted an outcry and appeals from the international community. Another thing is that on election day, the issue of shutting doors during the ballot counting process, whereby our citizens were not allowed to monitor or observe the process from outside. The NEC said such acts are illegal, yet they occurred. The election law appears to be too strict toward civil society organizations carrying out their activities. In this cycle, civil society organizations were very concerned and worked cautiously. When they were too cautious, it was hard for them to carry out their work effectively. Another point that needs to be improved concerns our people living overseas. We must ensure that our people living and working abroad such as in Thailand, Korea or other countries are provided the opportunity to register to vote. We continue to demand that our overseas workers be able to vote through arrangements such as via our embassies or at set locations.

Lastly, we know that more than one million people who registered to vote failed to go to vote due to various obstacles. These included restrictions for garment workers as they were not given enough time to travel to vote, and were faced with having their wages cut. We need to change all of this. We have to think about the fact that more than 1 million people did not go to vote. If those people were able to vote, the CNRP would have increased its votes and we would be able to gain further victory. We see the preliminary results showed that the CNRP votes are 500,000 less than the CPP. Most of these workers vote for the CNRP. Also, almost 2 million people were not able to register to vote. Had these people been able to register and go to vote, the number of democrats would be much higher. We don’t expect that all of these things can be changed at once. But if we all have the will (to change), this would be not just for the sake of the CNRP, but also for the sake of other parties that lost elections.

RFA: You said that in this election, there were a lot of restrictions on civil society organizations, causing them to be very cautious, and as a result their work was not carried out effectively. Can you give a specific example?

Kem Sokha: I noticed that during past elections, when there were any problems, they would take prompt actions and intervene immediately at voting stations, offices or nearby spots. Such intervention included lodging complaints and other efforts to seek justice. But now they appear to be very quiet and didn’t dare to do much. Also, in issuing their statements, they appear to be very cautious. Another example of unfairness is that while some civil society organizations faced are concerns and fears and faced restrictions, other groups that considered themselves civil society could go visit any polling stations at will. But independent groups, if they dared to do so, they would face litigation.

RFA: What will the new blood in the CNRP do to distinguish itself from the CPP? What will your party’s commune chiefs do to make themselves better than the old commune chiefs? What are their strong points, since they are inexperienced?

Kem Sokha: For the CNRP, we know clearly, and we already have our plan. Right after the conclusion of the June 4’s election, on June 5 I called for a meeting among all CNRP provincial presidents and lawmakers so that we can devise plans to help our elected commune chiefs and councilors. We discussed what we have to do to implement our political platform set forth during the campaign, so that they will honor the party’s promises. There are a lot of things that we can do different from the ruling party. For instance, our commune chiefs will issue papers without any political discrimination; we won’t let them charge service fees over what is determined by law and they must make sure that they act on a timely manner. We are not merely talking. We have our lawmakers to help guide them from behind the scenes by giving advice, and providing further training and arrangements for them to practice. Also, we have our monitoring group. If they notice our commune chiefs do not work properly, we will dare to change or have them removed. Another thing, we will educate our commune chiefs and councilors to work properly and cooperate with other parties without any political discrimination. We want them to cooperate and treat one another as the same Cambodians. Even if we win, we have to cooperate so as to ensure the effectiveness of our work for the sake of the citizens. They can only discuss the party’s affairs during their time off from commune work, not during their working time when they are serving the citizens in their localities.

RFA: Will the CNRP’s commune chiefs charge commission fees, a major complaint of citizens?

Kem Sokha: As I already said, absolutely we won’t allow this to happen. Our commune chiefs and candidates have already made commitments to never letting that happen. If such issue occurs, they agreed to be removed from their posts. We won’t just let them tell us or let us know about the irregularities. We will form a senior commission at each commune/sangkat, led by respected people, to monitor and evaluate, and give scores to our commune chiefs’ performance. If their score is low or dropping from year to year, we won’t let them continue. We have to change them. I also want to reiterate that we cannot just change everything in one day. We have a plan to educate, train, improve, and strengthen the capacity of our commune chiefs and councilors.

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