Long Beach, CA — He is not the loud, outspoken man you expect him to be.
He projects neither the overflowing passion of a revolutionary nor the mystique of a man who frequently dodges danger.
Ben Franklin would run circles around his methodically chosen words.
Rather, Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Sam Rainsy Party, seems to have accidentally fallen into the title of Opposition Leader to the Cambodian Government. Though his passion runs deep, he speaks in quiet tones and simple words. He has the patience of a man who is used to chipping at stone, used to waiting. Waiting twenty-seven years to return to Cambodia, waiting for a chance to help guide his country.
In an interview near the end of a trip to solicit US support for several of his policies, he spent several hours outlining to me his hopes and vision for Cambodia.
“We have to start sometime, somewhere,” he said, explaining his party’s willingness to oppose an entrenched political system where most of the gatekeepers are affiliated with the CPP, Hun Sen’s ruling party. In a country where he elicits both feelings of admiration and exasperation, he is determined to reset the stage with what he calls a new set of standards.
According to Sam, everyone makes exceptions for Cambodia today. The standards that are applied to other nations are not applied to Cambodia, and international aid donors accept Cambodia’s lower performance because “that is good enough for Cambodia.”
In reality, the “new” standards that cause him to sit forward in excitement are not new at all. To him, “new standards” are synonymous with meritocracy, fair play, transparency, and rule of law. While they may be new in a Cambodian context, they are the basic rules by which most of the western world plays.
Although Cambodia has made decent progress in recent years, Sam feels it can do better. Being held to a lower standard means policymakers can get away with greater demands on the international community despite an inefficient use of funds. Not only is this a waste of valuable resources, it is humiliating in Sam’s eyes. “We don’t want handouts. We want the world and Cambodia to expect the same performance from our politicians and our people that is expected out of everyone else.”
Implicit within this discussion of standards, of course, is an understanding that international donors wield a powerful lever by which Sam hopes to reform Cambodia. If the donors start applying world-class standards to Cambodia as a country, perhaps those high expectations will overflow into other aspects of Cambodian politics and business.
“I want to help build a new society organized in a different way,” he says with conviction. “I want a society based on selection, pay, and motivation.”
What does Sam hope will come of this?
He measures success not just quantitatively, but qualitatively. Not just by growth rates and per capita incomes but by how people treat themselves and how they see the future. “I envision a country where people have hope and believe in learning and progress; a country where people get rich but honestly, where parents see their children’s futures shaped by learning and fair competition. I see a country where women can have careers, success, and dignity without relying on men and without giving up dignity to do so.”
For a man with such grand visions, he is an unassuming figure. Casually dressed in a white cable knit sweater and worn brown trousers, he spent nearly three hours sharing his vision and thoughts with me. He occasionally leans forward to stress a point, but most of the time sits back relaxed and speaks with a patient, measured calmness-like a man who knows that, inevitably, his time will come.
To my surprise, our meeting felt more like one between a teacher and a former student than like one between a political dissident and a journalist. The encounter lacked posturing or ceremony, and I could easily see how the stories of how he puts both diplomats and villagers at ease could be true.
I was so comfortable with him, in fact, that we spent the first part of my conversation with him discussing my own interest in Cambodia’s development. The role reversal was a strange turning of tables-I felt as if he were interviewing me. As Sam began asking me questions about my background and interest, I realized that he was assessing my interest in rebuilding the country, something that I learned is a common habit of his.
“Right now, so many people [Cambodians outside Cambodia] live easy, live well. The capable, the wealthy, stay back,” he says, striking a note somewhere between disappointment in and hope for the untapped potential of Cambodians abroad.
Capable Khmers educated abroad are an important component of Sam’s ideas of how to affect the most rapid change in Cambodia. This notion is unsurprising coming from someone who himself left Cambodia in 1965 to gain a French education.
“We need to bring the capable to Cambodia. If Khmers abroad return to Cambodia, take root, and plant themselves there, we can make a huge difference. These Cambodians educated abroad are the most credible ones who can look westerners in the eye and say, ‘I know your standards; I expect the same for my country.’ They can show that they have personally achieved those standards and that their country, too, can achieve those standards. That is their power,” he says, circling back to his belief that higher standards provide the keys to a new Cambodia.
Primary to his vision of success, however, is a need to transform the emotional landscape in Cambodia. “First, we have to give the Khmer people confidence-confidence in themselves, in each other, in our institutions. Right now, no one is sure whom to follow or trust.” By standing by the people, showing them what they can achieve by raising their voices, and giving them a leader who measures up to a standard of transparency, fairness, and accountability, Sam believes that confidence will take root.
In fact, he can sense the seeds sprouting already.
Although Sam has been responsible for organizing several demonstrations and labor strikes in the past, he notes that Cambodians have started assuming responsibility for their own political and economic needs. “The tone of the country has changed; people are more willing to speak out. The last few demonstrations have been blamed on me, but I haven’t had anything to do with them,” he says with a glint of satisfaction in his eyes. “Cambodia is changing; this was a fundamental shift in the way of thinking. You’ll see even more changes occurring,” he promises.
Consistent with his aspirations to empower all people, he holds as his role model Abraham Lincoln. “Lincoln was a hero. Just as Lincoln fought slavery, we are fighting slavery-it’s just that the chains that we are fighting are invisible. In Cambodia, people are born into despair, hunger, and poverty; people are dying of record levels of AIDS. This is a kind of slavery, a slavery of the human condition,” he says.
Like his role model, Sam has no illusions about the difficulty of achieving his vision. As the opposition leader, he has been subject to both direct and indirect threats on his life. Although he has been forced to duck and cover more than once, he reflects on those harrowing moments matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I feel afraid, but fear doesn’t paralyze me and the need to move forward makes my fear vanish. In action, I just think to myself, ‘we must go on.’ I don’t have time to be afraid. I just think of moving forward.”
Sam admits, however, that he is very careful about how he handles himself. “I take risks, but calculated risks. Otherwise, I would be dead ten times over.” A particularly strong defense he has learned to use well is the press. He cites the presence of the press for helping him survive through many difficult ordeals. “When they are there, I know the world is watching. I know my story will go out, regardless of what happens.”
To Sam, the knowledge that the story of his struggle will be told is almost as compelling as the ideals for which he fights those battles. “I try to lead by example. I know that people follow. It just takes one; people follow.”
“I want Cambodians to stand up for themselves. I want those who live abroad to come back and say, “I return to stay, to fight.”
He challenges me with a question which I suspect is how he approaches every Cambodian he meets: “If you knew you could make a difference and affect millions of lives, would you go?”