On Friday, SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua returned from Burma where she met Aung San Suu Kyi and spent two days training potential female candidates from Burma’s National League for Democracy. After boycotting last year’s elections—the first to be held by the ruling military junta in two decades—the NLD announced last week it would join upcoming by-elections after the laws were revised to allow former political prisoners to run. Just hours after the NLD announced yesterday that Ms Suu Kyi would run for Parliament, Ms Sochua talked with The Cambodia Daily’s Abby Seiff about the rapid changes facing Burma and what the opposition in both countries can learn from one another.
Q: What’s the prevailing sense of the prospect for elections there? Are people hopeful they will be free and fair this time?
A: When I met with Aung San Suu Kyi, she asked me about democracy in Cambodia and where is it going wrong. I said two things: one is free and fair elections. The second is how in 1993, when the royalists won the election, there was a framework from the UN for the protection of human rights, democracy, and all that—but the detailed plan for implementation was never really worked out. Plus, the international community wanted to say “OK, done, finished.” And now you have this result. And that was the point that I made with Aung San Suu Kyi.
- Do you think Burma can learn from Cambodia’s mistakes?
A: Definitely. I think that’s why–when I was working with the women–they were so, so thankful that I could share my experience in Cambodia. We’re neighbors; plus, we’re opposition; plus our leader is facing the same kangaroo court. We have two leaders, Rainsy and Suu Kyi who lead their own parties with the same set of principles and ethics.
Q: Speaking of the comparison between the two. It seems like quite a lot of Suu Kyi’s popularity and power comes from the fact that she willingly was arrested and stayed under arrest in Burma. Do you think there might have been a benefit for the opposition here had Sam Rainsy followed a similar tack and stayed in Cambodia?
A: When Rainsy was put on trial, he was already outside of the country. In Burma’s case it was different. If Suu Kyi had left the country–she knew the junta wanted her to leave. It would have meant “don’t come back, we got rid of you.” As for Rainsy being out: you think he is enjoying life outside [Cambodia]? For him, it is the deprivation of his right to return home by a court that is a kangaroo court.
Q: You mention that it’s difficult to walk outside as an opposition party member in Burma without being followed, let alone canvass or campaign. Nevertheless, if the NLD runs in the election it’s presumed that they’re going to do extremely well. If the government can currently keep them down to the point where people aren’t even allowed to walk on the street…do you think they actually stand a shot at making changes within the country?
A: Oh, I’m sure Suu Kyi won’t tolerate this limit to her freedom. For sure she will demand free and fair elections. For sure. The lesson goes during the training that you identify issues, then you draft a message, and then you campaign. But there [in Burma]-it was so clear that they don’t need to campaign.
Q: In Burma, the opposition party-despite the fact that they’re held down–is so strong. In 1990, they just swept the elections…
A: Eighty-two percent!
Q: Exactly–there was no question they were the winners… Here, however, it’s the ruling party that’s in that position…. Do you think the opposition parties in Cambodia could learn from Burma, where they’ve managed to retain popularity?
A: We learn from each other. What we need is really strict details of how rule of law is going to be part of the package in Burma. In Cambodia, it was the Paris Peace Accord, which the international community is not interested in today. And I’m afraid it might be the same in Burma. If we jump in and we’re so overjoyed by the opening [in Burma] today…. We have to be careful, very careful. We have to see how the election is being conducted. Here, we have learned in the most painful way of how the international community half baked the cake.
Q: But it seems that by now the cake is baked. And…even with completely free and fair elections, the CPP is going to have widespread popular support; not the opposition.
A: No, no, no, no. Try free and fair elections with [the opposition truly included]. Put my face on TV every night. Come on. Why aren’t they allowing me on TV? Why are they after me? I still don’t have my [parliamentary] immunity restored. Why are they after Rainsy? Put his face on TV.”
Q: Yes, among the people who have access to TV, among the people who have access to media… But that’s not most of the country. Most of the country is extremely poor, extremely rural and they want the party that’s built them the road and the hospital.
A: Give us a chance to explain. Why are they stopping us from going to lead rallies? Why do they have to build that monkey [Freedom] park? Because they know that if we are let out, if it is a level playing field, can you imagine how hard we could campaign? They know what our force is. Same as in Burma. Why do they put these people under house arrest, or even kill them? Because the force is greater than what they can control. That’s the similarity [with Burma].
Q: So you don’t think it’s too late for Cambodia to have a vibrant, viable opposition movement?
A: It’s never too late. All it takes is free and fair elections. Why do they stop people from going to register [for elections]? Who are they stopping? The opposition. That’s not vibrant? That’s vibrant. It’s the same as in Burma.
Here, they’re able to keep the people under the control of one bag of rice, two bags of rice. Plus the civil servants who depend so heavily on their salaries. And the culture of nepotism. That’s what we want to stop. All the forces that form a vibrant democracy, a vibrant civil society, are crushed. Same as in Burma, but in Cambodia, these forces, thank god, are still alive, still strong.