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Sam Rainsy, whose family was driven out of Cambodia as a child, returned home from France after the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991 to help rebuild his country. A successful financier in Paris, Sam Rainsy served as Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994. He challenged the corrupt system of government that he found, seeking to put tax collection on a professional footing and to end the stripping of Cambodia’s natural resources such as timber by smugglers.
Forced out of government as a result, he created the Sam Rainsy Party as a democratic platform to challenge the rule of a narrow clique of insiders, many of whom were former Khmer Rouge members. The SRP’s early supporters were drawn from textile factory workers working 10-hour days for about $1 a day. Sam Rainsy helped to create Cambodia’s first free trade union in 1996, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The union called for a minimum wage and respect of basic rights at work. After a series of large-scale strikes, many of the union’s demands were accepted.
Swollen by support from the victims of large-scale government land seizures in Phnom Penh and across Cambodia, the SRP gained in strength in successive elections and in 2012, merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to create the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the country’s first united democratic opposition to Hun Sen’s dictatorship. Despite large-scale electoral abuses, the CNRP came close to defeating the Cambodia People’s Party in the 2013 elections.
Sam Rainsy has consistently sought to achieve reforms of Cambodia’s electoral system through negotiation, and to influence government policy through constructive debate. He negotiated with Prime Minister Hun Sen after the 2013 elections to reform the country’s National Election Committee and improve voting lists. This would have led to the will of ordinary Cambodians being more accurately reflected in elections scheduled for July 2018.
Repeatedly elected as a democratic representative in parliament since 1993, Sam Rainsy was forced back into exile in 2015. He stood down as CNRP leader in 2017 to prevent his politically motivated court convictions from being used as pretext to dissolve the party. The party was dissolved in November 2017. Rainsy’s successor as CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is now in prison.