Industry Minister Sleepless Over Loss in the City He Loves

More than a week after the elections, Minister of Industry Pou Sothirak can’t get a decent night’s rest.

Every time he tries to shut his eyes, he ponders his loss at the polls. “My eyes stay open,” the former Funcinpec member said Wednesday.

He can’t figure out why he lost his National Assembly seat in Sihanoukville by such a large margin. The Industry minister, who switched to the newly formed Reastr Niyum party, placed a distant fifth in Sunday’s poll for the municipality’s sole legislative seat.

“There was a feeling before the election I was very strong,” Pou Sothirak said. “At the end, I got only 1,000 votes. It just doesn’t make sense.”

During a two-hour interview at Reastr Niyum headquarters in Phnom Penh, the party’s secretary-general reflected on his devastating loss, the political turmoil that fractured Funcinpec last year, and his efforts over the last five years to establish a foundation for Cambodia’s industrial development.

“Basically, my heart belongs to Sihanoukville,” said Pou Sothirak, 41, who has represented the municipality since 1993’s UN-brokered elections.

During the latest campaign, he visited 81 of his constituency’s 82 villages and expected at least 6,000 to 10,000 votes. “I want to lose with some kind of dignity, but I don’t think I can accept this kind of defeat,” he said.

The CPP won Sihanoukville with more than 24,000 votes, according to preliminary figures from the National Election Com­mittee. CPP cabinet director Ith Sam Heng is set to be the re­gion’s new parliamentarian. Fun­cinpec placed second with nearly 20,000 votes and the Sam Rainsy Party third with about 13,500 votes. All other parties, including Reastr Niyum, gained nearly 7,000 votes collectively, or about 11 percent of the overall tally.

Pou Sothirak suspects fraud, and has alleged as much in a complaint this week with the National Election Committee.

To make his point, he produced two photo albums loaded with snapshots taken on the campaign trail: Pou Sothirak touring a shrimp factory, Pou Sothirak speaking to a crowd of 2,000 people, Pou Sothirak shaking hands with monks and villagers, and on and on.

“The people like me. I know they like me. Everywhere I go, tons and tons of people came to see me,” he boasted.

Then he pulled out another kind of scrapbook, this one containing post-election complaints. He produced a list of voters who insisted they had cast their ballots for him, and left their thumb­prints in green and red ink.

In one commune, Pou Sothirak counted more than 90 thumb­prints, yet the NEC’s preliminary results show him receiving only 44 votes. “I lost 50 votes somewhere,” he said. “What happened? I just don’t understand this.”

In Stung Haw district, the party had 3,000 registered members, he said, but only 200 voted for him.

It especially hurts, he said, to finish behind the Cambodian National Sustaining Party, be­cause the party’s president, Pen Sovann, never bothered to travel to Sihanoukville.

One party president who did campaign in the coastal city was Funcinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who urged voters not to cast their ballots for the “mustache party,” a reference to Pou Sothirak’s facial hair.

Nationwide, Reastr Niyum hoped to pick up 10 to 15 seats.

But Pou Sothirak claimed the election was marred by a CPP-controlled NEC. He also said it was difficult for party observers to verify vote counts because they were so far away from the ballots. One party worker in Kompong Cham province complained that when a ballot box was opened the morning after the polls, a large personal bag was found inside. “How could that get inside the slot?” Pou Sothirak mused.

“The whole thing is not very fair,” he said. “You cannot win. You cannot defeat the CPP.”

Reastr Niyum campaigned hard, he said, but could not overcome the perception that it was a puppet of Hun Sen or a traitor to Prince Ranariddh.

The party’s president, Foreign Minister Ung Huot, was installed as first prime minister after troops loyal to Hun Sen routed those loyal to the prince in two days of bloody street battles in July 1997. The fighting effectively ousted the prince from his democratically elected post.

Dozens of Funcinpec members fled the country, fearing for their lives. But many other top officials, some of whom had already publicly broken with the prince, stayed behind.

“We were caught in between the conflicts of the two men, Sam­dech Hun Sen and Prince Rana­riddh,” Pou Sothirak said. “No­body had any time to think what to do.”

It was not feasible, he said, for the 2 million to 3 million Funcin­pec members in Cambodia to flee to Thailand. Also, he felt bound to retain his post and keep the government working. Finally, he knew the election was coming up and wanted to be prepared.

Pou Sothirak also clarified the purpose of his trip to Bangkok soon after the fighting, denying he was acting as a “puppet of Hun Sen” to recruit Funcinpec exiles. He said National Assembly First Vice President Loy Sim Chheang, a Funcinpec leader, asked him to escort Funcinpec member Lu Laysreng back to Phnom Penh. But when he arrived in Bangkok, Pou Sothirak claimed, Lu Laysreng changed his mind.

“We’re not traitors,” he said.

Looking ahead, Pou Sothirak acknowledged it is a confusing time for him and others who have lost their seats in parliament. He will remain in his post until a new government is formed, but then will take from one to six months to “step aside and see things more clearly.” To be a “beach bum,” he added.

“I will work very hard for the Cambodian cause,” he said. “And all I want is to serve this country. That’s why I left the Boeing Co [in the US]. For 13 years, I never betrayed the principle, the principle of helping Cambodia.”

He said he is willing to serve the government in a technical capacity, but not a political one.

Already, some are praising him for his role as Industry Min­ister.

“He has a lot of ideas to develop the country,” said the Cam­bo­dian president of one Phnom Penh investment group. “Pou is a smart man.”

The executive said Pou Soth­irak was slow to improve urban power supplies, but excelled at exploring possibilities for oil companies and industrial factories.

Pou Sothirak said his ministry successfully boosted the energy and water sectors, and laid the foundation for future development. He also cited an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 new jobs in the textile industry and boasted of the government’s success in privatizing state-owned companies and eliminating subsidies.

In addition, he noted the success of obtaining in­ternational aid to renovate and expand power systems in Phnom Penh, Siha­noukville and Siem Reap.

On a blank sheet of paper, he sketched out the capital’s system of power plants, and how they will soon be connected with modern voltage lines. “By the end of the year, you will have the most modern system,” he said. “I don’t expect any brownouts. It’s going to be very sophisticated.”

As for rumors that powerful Sok An, co-Minister of the Coun­cil of Ministers and a CPP standing committee member, has signed off on all important contracts recently, Pou Sothirak confirmed the intervention.

Pou Sothirak would like to see an end to an administrative system so closely tied to the CPP.

Ministers should be appointed according to their abilities, not because they are “old party members.” “I’m not a minister of a party,” he said. “I’m a minister of a government.”

For a few more weeks, at least.

(Additional reporting by Kay Kim­song)


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