In the 18 months he was finance minister, Sam Rainsy built a reputation as a crusader.
But if he seemed strident then, he became even more so after he was booted out of Funcinpec, stripped of his portfolio and expelled from parliament.
Since founding his own political party in 1995, Sam Rainsy has been known as the government’s harshest critic and most loyal opponent, railing against corruption and leading strikes and demonstrations.
“Today the state is derelict, it has no money. It serves the interests of some people, acting as if they were god,” he says. “ We have to put Cambodia back on her feet and we need a master plan.”
Sam Rainsy’s master plan is littered with the buzzwords of corporate democracy: “rule of law,” “accountability,” “transparency.” It’s the language of a passionate technocrat, delivered with the panache of a canny politician.
But Sam Rainsy’s large following among factory workers and students can be attributed to the other side of his message: populist empowerment.
“Sam Rainsy tries to seek democracy,” said Huoth, a garment worker queueing for lunch at a stall outside the Sam-Han factory in Phnom Penh. “He pushes for increased salaries, for better treatment for the workers.”
Sam Rainsy’s role in the union movement has been called a cynical exploitation, stirring up workers by promising them better wages in a ploy to grab publicity and build his own popularity.
Yet, many garment workers say he was the only one interested in their plight. Before he helped organize them, many worked seven days a week for $20 or less a month. The strikes he led in early 1997 won a commitment from factories to pay at least $40.
The politician himself insists he was only the catalyst for workers’ dissatisfaction. Although the union has used his office, his fax machines and his computers, he says that it is the workers, not he, who are ultimately responsible for making change.
One of his favorite analogies when talking to workers is that one stick can easily be broken, but a bunch of sticks bound together is too strong to break.
“Democracy means people making decisions,” he says. “They must be responsible, at whatever level, at the village level, in the workplace, in the factory; we need decision-makers at the grassroots level.”
It is a message that many Cambodians appear ready to hear. In three short years, Sam Rainsy has from scratch built a party seen as a major player in the upcoming elections. Some say his popularity is even rivaling that of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the deposed first premier who expelled him from Funcinpec.
“It is a three-way contest—Sam Rainsy, Prince Ranariddh and [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen. There are no other significant leaders,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay, president of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, declared recently.
His high profile, though, has come with a price. Last year, at least 17 people were killed when four grenades exploded among a crowd of supporters gathered to listen to Sam Rainsy speak outside the National Assembly. He described it as an assassination attempt. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested at the time that Sam Rainsy arranged the attack himself to gain sympathy. No arrests have been made in the case.
The opposition mantle comes easily to Sam Rainsy. His father, Sam Sary, was a close associate of then-Prince Sihanouk in the 1950s and was at one time vice prime minister. But toward the end of the 1950s, Sam Sary split from the prince, becoming increasingly pro-US and setting up an opposition newspaper. Implicated in a plot to overthrow Sihanouk, he went into exile and disappeared, presumed dead, in 1962.
The young Rainsy was taken to France where, like his father, he studied finance and business in Paris. Unable to return to Cambodia in 1975, he, too, founded his own newspaper, publishing eyewitness accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities taken from refugees in the Thai border camps. He continued to make money in France, setting up his own accountancy firm in Paris and working for a number of banks and international financial institutions.
Sam Rainsy says he raised half a million dollars for his election campaign this year by selling off properties he owned in France. He estimates his remaining personal fortune at $600,000.
In the ’80s Sam Rainsy joined the anti-Vietnamese resistance movement operating from the Thai border. By the time of the Paris Peace Accords he was already heavily involved with the royalist Funcinpec party. Elected Siem Reap representative for Funcinpec in 1993, he served as finance minister for nearly 18 months.
But he rapidly gained a reputation as a maverick, speaking out against the government and the Funcinpec leadership.
He was stripped of his Finance portfolio in October 1994 and six months later was expelled from the royalist party. Shortly afterward, the National Assembly voted to remove him from his parliamentary seat. The former minister had become a dissident.
He spent the next six months drumming up support for a new party and in November 1995 launched the Khmer Nation Party.
The party would have been fighting this year’s election under that name, had it not been for a rival faction led by Kong Mony who tried to register separately as the KNP. Both parties were ordered to change their names and the Sam Rainsy Party was born.
The president said at the time the change in name could boost his chances at the polls.
“People know Sam Rainsy much better that the KNP,” he said in March this year. “My activists will not have to explain to people in the provinces that a vote for the KNP is a vote for Sam Rainsy.”
One only has to go to the party headquarters in Phnom Penh to see his point. The corridors are filled with committed party workers and candidates who seem inspired by their leader’s personal charisma.
National Assembly member Son Chhay can attest to Sam Rainsy’s inspirational value. “This has become like a new generation, a new kind of movement,” says Son Chhay, who left the Son Sann party to stand in this election on the Sam Rainsy platform. “He gives us confidence that what we are doing is right, he himself is leading us to do it. He represents the freedom, the hope of a better life.”
Some, however, say Sam Rainsy’s leadership style more autocratic than democratic. Last year, KNP secretary-general Khieu Rada broke away from the party last year in part because he believed Sam Rainsy was not practising the democracy he was preaching.
“It is a one-man show and I cannot work with him any more,” he said last October shortly after leaving the party.
Sam Rainsy has also gained a reputation for inciting xenophobic sentiments in disillusioned Cambodians by appealing to Khmers’ traditional distrust of the Vietnamese. However, he refutes criticism that the language he uses is racist.
“In English they say ‘yuon’ is a bad perjorative word,” he says, “But in the dictionary it comes from ‘Yunan’ in China. I’ve always been told the Vietnamese were ‘yuon’ so why should I change now? When [an English speaker] speaks about Germany you don’t say ‘Deutsch.’”
Sam Rainsy Party workers have claimed their supporters are intimidated and that activists encountered problems trying to register to vote. A party activist in Kompong Cham turned up dead last week. But Sam Rainsy says he won’t give in to intimidation and he doesn’t expect his workers to either.
“I am always at the front line; my type of leadership is through example. I think this explains the motivation of people who work with me. All of them are volunteers and all of them realise the risk they are taking while working with me.”
“The common good is something very big, very beautiful,” he says quietly. “It is worth living for and worth dying for.”
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