Saumura Tioulong: Aristocrat & Activist, East and West, Synergy & Individuality
This author has personally heard Saumura, on more than a few occasions, say this statement or permutations of the same point—“The wife of Sam Rainsy?! I am Saumura.” Indeed, it is but just to refer to her as her own person whose solid credentials and competence in the fields of both politics and economics stand on their own merit.
She is the daughter of a former prime minister, minister of three portfolios: foreign affairs, finance and education, and governor of Phnom Penh and other provinces; and the wife of the leader of the Cambodian opposition who was also a former finance minister after a successful career in Paris in business and finance. But make no mistake about it, she is her own person.
At the zenith of its power and glory, the Khmer Empire covered much of today’s Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. More than five hundred years later and after a century of French colonial rule, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge reduced Cambodia to one of the poorest nations in the world.
Imperial Khmer…Indochine. The ruins of the magnificent Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the dilapidated maisons along Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh are monuments of stone to Cambodia’s past—both as conquerors and conquered, both triumphant and tragic. In 1953, Cambodia gained independence from France. Though political turbulence continued, Cambodia in the fifties and the sixties held promise and possibilities. And Saumura’s father was part of that promise.
Then came the Killing Fields (1975 to 1979) that assaulted Cambodia with the relentless orgies of death and destruction of the infamous and murderous Khmer Rouge.
Saumura spent her primary education in Phnom Penh, Paris, Tokyo and Moscow; her high school at the Lycee Descartes in Phnom Penh. In 1969, Saumura went to France, her prominent family maintained a home in the center of Paris. She was still in her late teens when she left Cambodia, several years before the Khmer Rouge came to power. She returned only in 1992 with her husband, Rainsy. They have three children.
In France, she received the best education: a Political Science Diploma from the Institute of Political Science of Paris (1974) and an MBA from the prestigious Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (European Institute of Business Administration) or INSEAD (1980), acknowledged as one of the best business schools in the world, in its main campus in Fontainebleau.
With her sterling academic qualifications, she entered the world of high finance. Starting as Financial Analyst and Portfolio Manager at Banque Indosuez de Paris (1975- 1983), she became Managing Director of the French branch of Robert Fleming and Company, a Scottish investment bank specializing in securities management (1983-1988). And from 1988 to 1993, she was President and Chief Executive Officer of Mobiliere Conseil, a stock market advisory firm specializing in the Southeast Asian market.
Her being Asian and a woman were not obstacles not necessarily because the European and the men were open-minded but more so, because she did not allow it to be so. Had she remained in Europe, she would have certainly made more impressive strides in world finance. But Cambodia, her home, beckoned.
During her long years in France preoccupied with her studies and immersed in the world of finance while raising a family at the same time, Cambodia was always in her mind and heart. She was a member of the royalist FUNCINPEC since its founding in 1981. The Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique et Coopératif (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia) or FUNCINPEC was founded by King Norodom Sihanouk and his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, led the party to electoral victory in the 1993 elections supervised by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) (Facts and Details, n.d.). Sam Rainsy was one of the FUNCINPEC candidates who won that year’s election and he was later appointed as Minister of Finance.
Saumura became Vice Governor of the Cambodian Central Bank in 1993. She nego- tiated and supervised the implementation of the first International Monetary Fund (IMF) support programs in Cambodia. She left the Central Bank in 1995, the same year Rainsy founded the Khmer Nation Party (KNP), the precursor of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
In 1998, she became a member of parliament for the first time, representing Phnom Penh during the second National Assembly of Cambodia. She was one of the 15 SRP stal- warts who became part of 122-member legislature. She was reelected in 2003, one of the 24 SRP legislators in the 123-member third National Assembly of Cambodia. In 2008, she became one of the 26 SRP members in the fourth Cambodian National Assembly. During that year’s general elections, the Human Rights Party (HRP) of Kem Sokha won three seats.
SRP and HRP merged to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 17 July 2012. A CALD press release (18 July 2012) reported that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha and other leaders of SRP (including Saumura and Mu Sochua) and HRP convened at the CALD Secretariat in Manila to discuss the long-awaited unification of the two parties. After two days of careful deliberations, the two party presidents reached a historic agreement to “unite in accordance with the Khmer people’s will in order to save Cambodia by bringing about political change to put an end to a dictatorship serving destructive foreign interests.” The merger between SRP and HRP aims to directly oppose the dictatorial government that lies at the root of Cambodia’s problems. The ruling CPP recklessly exercises its power in violation of human rights and with- out consideration of national interests. It is this government that has led Rainsy into multiple self-imposed exiles to avoid imprisonment for politically motivated charges.
When the merger happened at the CALD office, Rainsy was the incumbent Chair of CALD, the first person to chair the alliance twice (2000- 2002, 2012-2014) and he was in exile.
During the fifth National Assembly (2013-2018), the opposition CNRP won a staggering 55 seats or 45 percent of the 123-member body. Hun Sen’s CPP won 68 seats or 55 percent, the smallest and worst victory in its entire history.
Given the pattern of an increment in the number of opposition seats every national elections; the small difference of ten percent in the number of seats occupied by the ruling and opposition parties during the latest general elections; the almost similar results in the June 2017 commune elections where CNRP got 44 percent while CPP received 51 percent; and, the growing dissatisfaction with the ruling CPP and Hun Sen himself, the victory of CNRP in the 2018 elections became not only a distinct possibility, it was the logical conclusion.
And lest we forget, the successes of the opposition must not be taken at face value, they were realized despite the political machinations and massive electoral fraud commit- ted by the Hun Sen regime and all its tentacles—a politicized military, a rubber stamp parliament, the systematic suppression of media and civil society, and last but not least, a subservient judiciary.
Thus, on 16 November 2017, the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP resulting from the politically motivated government-filed law suit that CNRP had conspired with foreigners to stage a revolution. This was the only surefire way for Hun Sen to remain in power. Also, more than a hundred opposition politicians, including Saumura, were barred from seeking elections for five years. In 2005, Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary immunity. A dozen years later, 55 oppositionists were simply stripped of their parliamentary seats. And Saumura, a four-term parliamentarian who never lost an election in her life, was one of them. To this day, she and Rainsy remain in exile while Kem Sokha remains in detention.
Part of this supposed conspiracy is a CALD partner, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs or NDI. Before the Supreme Court ruling, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry ordered the shutting down of the NDI office in Phnom Penh and the expulsion of all its foreign staff.
Despite the scale of political persecution, Saumura is still luckier than most of her compatriots, especially the estimated two million people who died as a result of one of the worst genocides in history. But her people’s tragedy is forever etched in her consciousness. And it must be particularly painful that the current oppressor of the Cambodian people, Hun Sen, is a remnant of the hideous Khmer Rouge having served as one of the commanders of the dreaded and dreadful Pol Pot.
Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, the longest authoritarian leader in the world today. But despite being in power for more than three decades, the legacy that he is perpetuating is much older. This atavistic tendency is also manifested by the ruling CPP. The Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, CPP’s precursor, was the sole legal party during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989). After winning only 55 percent of the parliamentary seats during the 2013 elections, the CPP now has 125 seats in the 125-member Sixth National Assembly of Cambodia as a result of 2018 elections.
Saumura, a pillar of Cambodian democracy, remains strong and outspoken. She has gone a long way—having thoroughly immersed herself in the rough and tumble of Cambodian politics—from the comforts of her privileged childhood.
“I was raised to be a ‘rose in a vase’,” Saumura once said in a 2007 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, as she re- called spending much of her childhood in Paris, Moscow and Tokyo (McDermid, 2007). The same article described her as “an engaging mixture of aristocrat and activist.”
When Charles McDermid (2007) interviewed her for this Phnom Post article, she asked if this would bethe first article that did not refer to her as the wife of Sam Rainsy. McDermid asked her why this is important and she responded, “When I was young, I was known as the daughter of my father. Now… I’m always introduced as the wife of Sam Rainsy. I am a human being in my own right, and I have had to fight for my own identity. All men are biased against women. It makes me furious: even the best man, in the bottom of their hearts is still a male chauvinist. I think I am married to the best of the best, and even Sam Rainsy is one…I have a long fight before me.”
She is a citizen of both France and Cambodia. During a particularly long journey from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham City with a delegation of European and Asian parliamentarians, the author once asked her in what language she thought. She said mostly in French especially when constructing ideas, theories and arguments as the logical structure of the French language is better suited for such purposes. But her heart and soul are definitely Cambodian.
This author personally witnessed how well she could argue whether as a speaker or merely reacting during the open forum in many of our conferences and workshops. CALD and the Alliance for Liberals Democrats in Europe (ALDE) have jointly organized meetings in Asia and Europe. In Brussels, she took to task officials of the various European Commissions, in fluent French and English, for their continued financial aid to Cambodia without stringent and sufficient oversight; thus, contributing to the corruption of the Hun Sen Regime and the perpetuation of CPP’s one-party rule.
Her talents are globally recognized. In 2007, Saumura was elected Vice President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Standing Committee on Sustainable Development, Finance and Trade. In 2014 she was elected president of that committee.
And this author has also joined Saumura and Rainsy in the remote villages of Cambodia. Simple folks would approach her and she would talk with them, this time in Khmer, with the same intensity and interest as she would when meeting with the highest echelons of European policymakers. The empathy between them, despite the obvious differences in education and social stature, was apparent. She is never condescending, always treating everybody else with respect.
Cambodia is a poor country: it is the fourth poorest country in ASEAN; 14 percent of the population live below the poverty line; 37 percent of Cambodian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition; and only 24 percent of Cambodians have access to electricity, 64 percent to clean water and 31 percent to adequate sanitation (Borgen Project, 2017).
Rainsy is a frequent visitor to the Philippines. To make things easier, this author would simply introduce him as “The Ninoy Aquino of Cambodia.” But at the back of this author’s mind, he had thought that the only reason why Hun Sen had not done to Rainsy what Marcos did to Ninoy was the Cambodian tyrant’s fear that Saumura would take over the leadership of the opposition.
Saumura is no Cory Aquino, a quiet housewife and mother of five who shied away from politics until she was thrust in the limelight in 1983. To those who know her quite well, she is intelligent, outspoken, eloquent and brutally frank. Simply put, no one messes with Saumura!
Journalist Michelle Vachon (2016) reported about Tioulongville, a beautiful abandoned forest town—the subject of photographer Kim Hak’s exhibit, “Tioulong, Echoes from a Golden Past.” Named after Nhiek Tioulong, “the well-designed and environmentally friendly” community was built on verdant hills and valleys for middle class public servants, a forest town with its own hospital and utility services. As Vachon (2016) narrated, then Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s 1969 movie Le Joie de Vivre featured some of the villas of Tioulongville, the tranquil scenery reflecting the mystique of the era.
Like Angkor Wat, Tioulongville was left for the forest to encroach upon about fifty years ago, a casualty of the brutal Khmer Rouge. According to Vachon (2016), the locals believe that the place is inhabited by spirits and should not be intruded upon.
Such is the DNA of Saumura. Though very much her own person with her character built through her own struggles and ventures, the spirit of her father lives within her. She has a clear vision of a better tomorrow for Cambodia, a very possible future given that it has proven itself in her father’s glorious past.
Saumura’s small stature and powerful voice reminds the author of the legendary French chanteuse, Edith Piaf. And her life reflected in the famous Piaf song, Non je ne regrette rien. “No! I will have no regrets. All the things that went wrong. For at last, I have learned to be strong.”
Borgen Project. (11 July 2017). Why is Cambodia Poor? Retrieved from The Borgen Project: https://borgenproject.org/why-is-cambodia-poor/
Facts and Details (n.d.). Political Parties in Cambodia. Retrieved from Facts and Details: http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Cambodia/sub5_2d/entry-2905.ht…
McDermid, C. (18 May 2007). Tioulong Saumura: Politician. Retrieved from The Phnom Penh Post: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/tioulong-saumura-politican
Vachon, M. (13 October 2016). Abandoned Forest Town Reflects of Beauty and ‘Golden Past’ Retrieved from Cambodia Daily: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/abandoned-forest-town-reflects-beauty…
First published in the book, Compelled by Duty, Conscripted by Destiny, authored by John Joseph S. Coronel, published by the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD).