Think-tank founder and Cambodian royalty is a strong advocate of dialogue and diplomacy to achieve stability in the region
(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)
What is the meaning of a think tank?
Norodom Sirivudh replied: “We try to think without tanks, and I advise you not to use tanks without thinking.”
Perhaps this clever answer laced with humor has several layers of meaning. After all, Sirivudh is the founder of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), and the chairman of the think tank’s board of directors.
As a sign of how much the CICP has risen in importance, it was the only non-governmental partner of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2017, held in Phnom Penh on May 10-12.
Think-tank activities aside, Sirivudh is also a prince — half-brother to former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk. He has served as a deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, as well as a member of the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec) party. So he brings to the table a wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience in politics and economics.
Speaking to China Daily Asia Weekly at his residence in Phnom Penh, the 66-year-old cast his mind back to 1993, when the CICP was founded.
“Cambodia had been completely isolated because of the Khmer Rouge regime, then the Vietnamese occupation.
“But following the elections supervised by the United Nations, my party Funcinpec won and I became the foreign minister,” he said. “The ‘second kingdom’ was born, but how could we reconnect with the world?”
These were the thoughts that laid the foundation for the concept of the CICP. Also, Sirivudh wanted Cambodia to become a member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
He created the CICP with the idea of using Track II diplomacy — activities outside of official government channels — to reach out to the ASEAN Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS). He and his team took the chance to learn as much as possible about the Southeast Asian grouping from the network of institutes.
“That is how we created the CICP,” Sirivudh said.
“We fed to our government what we learned from ISIS Track II to prepare it to join ASEAN one day. It took the effort of three foreign ministers to finally have Cambodia become a member in 1999.”
The think tank joined ASEAN-ISIS in 1997 and has evolved in many ways. Among its responsibilities are following up the use of Track II diplomacy on regional security issues and promoting studies and exchanges between ASEAN members as well as ASEAN+3 — which groups the 10 member countries with China, South Korea and Japan.
“Our role is to be a bridge,” he said. “We are interested to see how to sit down and promote dialogue, and not always talk about violence, protests and jail.”
Sirivudh repeatedly stresses the CICP’s independence. “We are not here to support the view of the government, or go against it,” he said.
Equally important to Sirivudh is to see the CICP being financially independent. “If possible, I avoid being dependent on the government, although it is difficult. You can lose your credibility otherwise. But we are not against think tanks that have support from the state.”
Having worked with the organization for 23 years, Sirivudh is happy that it has become well-known in the region. It is often approached by researchers from different universities around the world, asking for internships.
“We are small but well-connected,” he said. “The idea is to make Cambodia more visible, not in terms of the government but in terms of research.”
Ask Sirivudh why he is so passionate about the work he does at the CICP and he points to the political ideology he supports: Sihanoukism, named for the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk.
“What we did was try to convince others that our interest is not to be against anybody, but to promote the balance of power. Don’t use armed forces but use diplomacy instead.
“This is especially relevant to Cambodia because we are a small country. We were a victim of the Cold War. As the saying goes, when elephants fight, the grass suffers.”
He feels it is in the interests of Cambodia and ASEAN to “take care” of the big powers in the region — namely Japan, South Korea, and especially China.
“China’s growth is becoming a concern for some people. But for Cambodia, China’s growth is our growth. I don’t see any reason to be too concerned about this.
He brings up the issue of South China Sea maritime disputes. Sirivudh said that ASEAN should stay out of it, recalling Cambodia’s decision last year to not participate in any ASEAN joint statement on the issue. He said the maritime disputes should be resolved on a bilateral basis between the affected countries.
Domestically, he is aware that Cambodia has many problems — ranging from poverty, low GDP and lack of democracy to drug trafficking — and these are things he watches and spends time thinking about.
“Being the royalty of a poor kingdom is not a good thing. I show my passport to an immigration officer and it says ‘prince’. But look at the GDP rating, it’s not so good.”
His fervent hope is that Cambodia’s general elections next year will be stable. With around 1.4 million of the population — or 9 percent — in the 15-19 age bracket, he worries there could be upheaval in the streets if the country’s youth do not agree with the election result. And in such a scenario, he fears the ruling party’s response could involve the armed forces.
“I’m not sure the ruling party led by (Prime Minister) Hun Sen should continue using the judiciary system as a way to (control) people as they did in the 2013 elections. Personally I think it does not work,” Sirivudh said.
“It’s going to be very tense. For me, it’s the uncertainty. If the ruling party becomes nervous, it means they have a lack of confidence. If the opposition isn’t well-managed, if they become divided, they will face difficulties.
“It is better to imagine a conclusion where the ruling party is still ruling,” he said. “It could lose some seats, and the opposition could gain some seats, so the checks and balances would be there. If (the) opposition grows too much and wins, is the ruling (party) ready to transfer power?”
Despite this uncertainty, Sirivudh remains optimistic. He supports the alliances the country has built, particularly with China.
And he believes that a young and energetic population, lacking only education and training, makes Cambodia attractive.
“We are on the right track in terms of our future and potential,” he said. “It just depends on whether we have good governance and vision.”
As the interview draws to a close, Sirivudh introduces the topic of agriculture. “I often tell the leadership, don’t forget nature. We have no shortage of land and space — be agriculture-oriented.”
As an example, he pointed out that the United States is a country based on agriculture and therefore will survive in the event of a crisis.
“I have a market already — China is ready to buy my mangoes, Singapore is ready to buy my durians. We should still stick to agriculture.”
Founder of Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP),
2010: Member, Constitutional Council of Cambodia
2006: Supreme privy counselor to His Majesty the King
2003: Member of parliament, Kandal province and deputy prime minister and co-minister of interior, the royal government
2001: Secretary-general, National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec)
1994: Founder, CICP
1993: Co-deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs
1981: Joined Funcinpec
1971: Joined the Paris-based royalist movement Gouvernement Royal d’Union Nationale du Cambodge / Royal Government of National Unity of Kampuchea
What are your thoughts on Cambodia’s close ties with China?
Our two countries have traditionally had good relations dating back to the 1950s. After the Paris Peace Agreement was signed (in 1991), the Chinese were the first to invest in Cambodia. Today, they are the No 1 investors in our country and have been our main economic pillar. I don’t see any problems for us to be concerned about this. We must think “Cambodia first”.
What role does Cambodia play on the Asian culture stage?
Thanks to our ancestors, we have our national treasure that is Angkor Wat (a World Heritage site and the world’s largest religious monument). It is a top-level heritage that has attracted millions of visitors, in particular the Chinese — they are our No 1 visitors. We have this unique asset to offer to the world.
What lessons can Cambodia’s suffering in the 1970s and 1980s teach the world?
We have faced war, genocide and foreign occupation. But we have shown that we have survived and have the capacity to rebuild the country. Our kingdom disappeared in 1975, then reappeared again in 1991, with the same government led by our former King Sihanouk. I have never seen this before in other countries, but we have shown that it is possible.
Date of birth: June 8, 1951