Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy says Cambodians are growing impatient with the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held on to power for 26 years. Sam Rainsy says his countrymen could decide to follow the example of Egyptians and Tunisians, who recently overthrew their authoritarian rulers.
The opposition leader, who faces a prison sentence at home for allegedly inciting racial tension with Vietnam, is currently living in France. He recently visited the U.S. and spoke with VOA’s Kate Woodsome. In their conversation, Sam Rainsy pointed to parallels between the situation in Cambodia and that in the Middle East.
Does Cambodia have the potential to turn into a situation like what happened in Egypt and Tunisia?
"There are many similarities between Cambodia and those countries where we have seen popular uprisings over the last few weeks or few months. The similarities are related to poverty, to social injustice, to corruption, to the lack of mechanisms whereby the people could express themselves—could express their will to change—to improve—the system. So because of this lack of freedom, and because of the growing popular frustrations and discontent, I think what is happening in Egypt, in Tunisia, and in Libya could take place also in Cambodia any time."
Is that something that you would like to see happen?
"It would be better to avoid violence. It is why we urge the Cambodian government, with the support of the international community, of friendly countries such as the United States, to implement democratic reform, to ensure that the people have a means to express their desire for change and they do not have to resort to street demonstrations to bring about democratic reforms."
You say Cambodians are concerned about poverty and corruption, but the International Republican Institute recently released a survey showing that 76 percent of Cambodians are satisfied with the direction of their country. How do you explain that?
"It depends on the question that you ask. If you ask, “Have your living conditions improved over the last five years?” I think the answer would be different. So, in a country where there are no freedoms of expression, we have to take very carefully the result of any opinion poll."
Is there any indication that the Cambodian government is concerned the demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa could spread to Cambodia?
"Definitely, the Cambodia government is very concerned because the ruling party in Cambodia, and especially Mr. Hun Sen, have been in power for around 30 years. And all over the world there is a desire for change. People want change, want new leaders, want new approach, want new policies."
Have you seen any indication the Cambodian government is taking steps to avoid what is happening in the Middle East?