PHNOM PENH – Born into an upper-class family, Sam Rainsy began his career as a Paris-based banker but went on to become one of Cambodia’s most controversial and outspoken politicians.
The self-professed democrat, who returned to his homeland Friday after a royal pardon for charges he maintains were politically motivated, is the arch-rival of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.
While both seek to portray themselves as men of the people, they differ hugely in style, said independent analyst Lao Mong Hay, a former researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.
“Hun Sen is uncultured, less educated, arrogant and ruthless, Rainsy more educated, more cultured, and more civilized. Hun Sen is Machiavellian, Rainsy more principled,” he said.
After earning an MBA from France’s INSEAD Business School, Rainsy worked for various banks in Paris, joining the Paribas group in 1988 before leaving to set up his own accountancy firm.
His education and “aristocratic background” mean he is not well-versed in the language of the masses, unlike Hun Sen, said Hay. “He is a man of the people up to a point,” Hay said, adding Rainsy was the first local politician to lead workers’ rights demonstrations in the mid-1990s.
“Because of this, many workers were and still are supporting him,” he said.
Rainsy, now 64, was born in Phnom Penh. He moved to Paris at the age of 16, after the disappearance of his father, a politician believed to have been killed by government agents after a failed coup bid.
He first became actively involved in Cambodian politics while still in Paris in 1989 as an overseas representative of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then president of the royalist party FUNCINPEC.
Rainsy, who is married with three children, returned to Cambodia in 1992 after a major U.N. peacekeeping operation to stabilize the war-torn country and hold democratic elections. He became finance minister after FUNCINPEC took power.
But he soon fell out with Ranariddh — allegedly after pushing for stronger action against corruption and the illegal exploitation of natural resources — and was forced to resign after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament.