Cambodia’s claim to independence 56 years ago, led by former king Norodom Sihanouk, prevented the country from weakening and losing territory, opposition lead Sam Rainsy said Thursday, four days ahead of Independence Day.
“Luckily, we had leaders, especially…Norodom Sihanouk,” Sam Rainsy said, as a guest on “Hello VOA.” “By then he had the highest clever wisdom to claim independence. And if we had not claimed independence, we would have been a weak country, mistreated, without sovereignty, losing territory and dignity.”
Cambodia had been a protectorate under French colonialism, a position that lasted 90 years but one that prevented Cambodia from being taken over, half by Thailand and half by Vietnam, split at the Mekong River.
Independence would be followed by years of turmoil: Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 and a republic was established, only to be overrun by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, who were pushed out by the Vietnamese and their decade-long occupation.
It was not until 1991 that Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy, where a king reigns but does not rule, signing off on legislation that is drafted by the executive branch and debated and approved by the National Assembly and the Senate.
Sihanouk abdicated in 2004, but is still widely respected as the man who brought independence.
“So a good leader, this our Khmers respect, our Khmers follow, and our nation progresses,” Sam Rainsy said. “But when there is a lamentable leader, an uneducated person, a cruel person,” he can only be the leader if he has help from foreigners, if foreigners install him to be the leader, he said. “They owe the foreigners, and the foreigners want what in payment?”
“And this is not a new story,” he continued. “It’s an old story, centuries old. They want our land. They want more of their people to flow into and live on our land. Then one day, to that will be another Kampuchea Krom. Then it’s finished. That’s why we need a leader who is a real nationalist, who has high idealism, that all Khmers can unite with.”
Without a good leader, Cambodia would lose more of its territory to Vietnamese and Thai expansion, he said. Sihanouk was able to maintain neutrality, “a good policy,” Sam Rainsy said, allowing the Vietnamese to fight with each other and the Thais to fight with each other.
“Let them fight,” he said. “We do not need to take sides. That would be just like playing with fire. And playing with fire can burn the hand, and if it doesn’t burn the hand, it can burn the house, and if the houses surrounding our home are burning and we go to play, we blow the fire and it may ignite our home.”
Cambodia should remember Independence Day, he said, and the hard struggle by former nationalists who helped Sihanouk achieve it.