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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Exiled Cambodian leader speaks to local compatriots

By Steve Huffman
The Dispatch

Sam Rainsy, a member of Cambodia's parliament, brought a message from his native land to Davidson County Saturday night.

Unless you spoke Cambodian, it was impossible to understand what Rainsy was saying, but he drew the rapt attention of about 200 Davidson County residents who are of Cambodian descent. Rainsy spoke at the Lexington Buddhist Temple off Pinelodge Road.

In a brief interview where he spoke English, Rainsy, 63, said he had been forced into exile from Cambodia, but still travels frequently to the country. He remains a member of the country's parliament, Rainsy said.

"It's not the first time," he said of his forced exile. "I'm used to it."

Rainsy was accompanied by his wife, Tioulong Saumura. Like her husband, she's a member of the Cambodian parliament, but living in exile.

Saumura said the couple lives in Paris. She said the last time they returned to Cambodia was about a month ago.

Officially, the country is a constitutional monarchy, but Saumura said its rule is a dictatorship.

"When we go to Cambodia, we don't sleep well at night," Saumura said. She said there have been recent assassination attempts against other Cambodian political leaders. Saumura said she and her husband flew Saturday to Greensboro from New York City where she had been addressing members of the United Nations concerning problems in Cambodia. She is, Saumura said, head of international relations for the Sam Rainsy Party.

The party, Saumura said, was formerly the Khmer Nation Party, but members changed the name due to harassment by the Cambodian government.

The Sam Rainsy Party is Cambodia's second-most popular, having garnered 1.3 million votes in the 2008 national election, the nation's most recent. The Cambodian People's Party is the nation's most popular, garnering 3.5 million votes in that same election. Of the 123 members

of the nation's parliament, 26 are from the Sam Rainsy Party while 90 are from the Cambodian People's Party. Parliament's remaining members come from smaller parties.

Judging by reaction to Rainsy's appearance in Davidson County, he is wildly popular among Cambodians. He was treated with the type reverence Americans typically reserve for professional athletes or rock stars.

Many flocked to have their pictures taken with him Saturday night. The show of respect transcended cultures.

Sam Bour served as an interpreter for Rainsy on occasions Saturday. He said Rainsy spoke about border wars between Cambodia and Vietnam, and warned that Vietnam is trying to swallow Cambodia.

Saumura said the respect the people of Cambodian descent showed her husband Saturday is indicative of that he attracts when he speaks at any number of locations around the world. Native Cambodians, she said, continue to worry about and seek information about their homeland, regardless of their years of separation.

"They have found a new motherland here," Saumura said, motioning to those who waited to speak to her husband. "They still care for their (native) country."

Rainsy's Saturday night address was interrupted often by shouts and applause.

Rainsy was born in Phnom Penh in 1949. His father was a member of the Cambodian government in the 1950s. Rainsy was the nation's minister of finance in the early 1990s. He founded the Khmer Nation Party in 1995 and has served as president of the Sam Rainsy Party since 1998.

Rainsy's political fortunes have in recent years alternated between exile and a desire expressed by many Cambodians that he return and lead the nation through its problems.

According to Rainsy's own website, "Sam Rainsy is the architect and founder of the Sam Rainsy Party. He leads the party through many elections. No doubt, Sam Rainsy is the second-largest party in the country. Sam Rainsy used to enjoy financial support from within the country and abroad. But 13 years in opposition is a long time. Some have even started to predict the next election will be the last for Sam Rainsy, if there is no dramatic change in the current structure."

Rainsy's most recent exile stems from an incident in October 2009 where he led residents at the Cambodia/Vietnam border in a protest against alleged Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territory. Rainsy is alleged to have encouraged villagers to uproot border markings that he claimed were illegally placed by Vietnam. Rainsy was charged with racial incitement and destruction of property, charges he said are politically motivated.

Cambodia is best known for the genocide of 1975-1979 that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime. It's estimated that of the nation's 8 million inhabitants, as many as 2.5 million died.

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