Saturday, July 27, 2013


The National Elections in Cambodia tomorrow will be a major turning point in the country’s history regardless of who wins  - the Cambodian People’s Party, in power for 28 years under Prime Minister Hun Sen, or the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by president, Sam Rainsy.

That the president of the major opposition party, only recently returned from exile to escape an 11 year jail sentence,  is not allowed to stand for parliament provides a clue as to how free and fair the election will be. 

Rainsy's CNRP, promising free health care, education and pensioner rights, an increase in factory and civil servant wages, to bring to an end forced evictions and illegal land grabs, to lower the prices for rice, electricity and petrol, is very popular with voters all around the country.

 If the size of the pre-election rallies and the enthusiasm of the crowds attending them is any indication, Sam Rainsy’s CNRP would almost certainly win the election. However, the 1.2 million voters who registered in the lead-up to the election who cannot find their names on voting lists (the majority of them supporters of the CNRP) will not be able to vote, representing a huge setback for the CNRP.  This is just one of many ‘irregularities’ (a euphemism much in use by donor countries afraid to call a spade a spade!) in the electoral process (controlled in its entirety by Hun Sen’s CPP) that will almost certainly rob the CNRP of the victory that should rightfully be Rainsy’s.

Despite its huge nation-wide popularity the CNRP will not, short of a miracle, wrest power from ‘strongman’ (another diplomatic euphemism!) Prime Minister Hun Sen in tomorrow’s elections. It is certainly on the cards, however, in the wake of the defeat of Rainsy’s CNRP, that the young people of Cambodia -a switched on Facebook generation - will take to the streets, make their presence felt and demand change – the word, in Khmer, that plays a very similar role in this Cambodian election to the ‘It’s Time’ slogan that helped win Whitlam the Australian federal election in 1972. Last night, as I walked and rode through Phnom Penh on a motor bike, it was this one chanted word, this mantra – ‘change’ -  that was literally on everyone’s lips, echoing through the streets on a warm and humid Friday night as enthusiastic young CNRP called out to each other and dreamt of a better future.

Hun Sen’s CPP gained its legitimacy from the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime – a fact that the party keeps reminding the populace to this day. However, Cambodia’s young, who had no experience of the Khmer Rouge and who do not feel under any obligation to politicians like Hun Sen (in their 60s and 70s now) for having ‘saved’ them from communism, do not fear the intimidation that pervaded previous elections. Perhaps it is because they know, from the Arab Spring, that impossible dreams may not be impossible after all. These young Cambodians want much more than mere peace. They want jobs and they want to enjoy the benefits of development in Cambodia that at present enriches only the families of the kleptocracy that runs the country.

There is a feeling of excitement in the air today – the hundreds of thousands of young CNRP who have taken to the streets  these past few weeks convinced, by dint of their sheer numbers that Hun Sen must surely lose the election; that the country is on the brink of a major change. When Hun Sen does not lose the election (and it is almost certain that he will not since  he controls the entire electoral and appeals processes) and their hopes are dashed, what will these young idealists do? How will they respond?

In the unlikely event that Rainsy’s CNRP does win, it is hard to imagine that Hun Sen will give up power - after 28 years of enjoying it and enriching himself, his family and his cronies with it - without a fight. What sort of fight remains to be seen. Perhaps a clue is to be found in the fact that Hun Sen has, on several occasions this past few months, issued thinly veiled threats that if the CPP loses, Cambodia could be pitched into a civil war. Hun Sen has not made it clear just who would be fighting whom - unless it is Hun Sen's 10,000 strong personal bodyguard and the army, both fiercely loyal to him, against all those who did not vote for him. That the Prime Minister of a supposed democracy, propped up with funds from donor countries such as Australia and the US, needs 10,000 personal bodyguards speaks volumes of the regime he leads or, throwing political correctness to the winds, the dictatorship he presides over.

Interestingly, young Cambodians armed with mobile phones and sharing information on Facebook, now feel free to call Hun Sen a dictator and to accuse him and his political cronies of corruption. They no longer fear him. If the loss of fear of their leaders on the part of the populace is one of the things that dictators dread most, Hun Sen must be a worried man. He will almost certainly win the election but forces have been unleashed by the events leading up to this election over which he has no control. Recent global history suggests that his days are numbered.

It may be, if Hun Sen does lose the election, that he decides to cling to power in the same way that the Generals clung to it in Burma after the 1990 elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi's  National League for Democracy. If so, how will the international donor community react? Will it (and this includes Australia) continue to provide aid to Cambodia or will the spigot be turned off until the will of the people is adhered to?

The election itself is but the beginning of the story though – regardless of who wins. It is what happens in the week following the election that will be most interesting. Just as Hun Sen will not accept losing government, nor will Cambodia’s youth accept having their hopes and dreams dashed by their corrupt and now very wealthy leaders. The stage is set for a confrontation of some kind and it is to be hoped that Hun Sen tells his 10,000 bodyguards, armed with state of the art weaponry, to act with restraint when these young Cambodians take to the street next week in protest, as they surely will.

As Sam Rainsy says, the election result will not be the end of anything but the beginning of what is shaping up to be the country’s own Khmer-style ‘Cambodia Spring.’ What form this will take and how long it will take is the question everyone in Cambodia is asking and that no-one has the answer to.

1 comment:

  1. How well has Australian aid been spent this past decade in “Strengthening Democracy and Electoral Processes aims to support Cambodia in conducting free, fair, transparent and sustainable elections. It is a between-the-ballots initiative that promotes a culture of democracy by providing long-term support to institutions and the media. It also assists with civic education initiatives that involve the Cambodian people as a whole, especially the younger generation.” This is a quote from the following website:

    Between 2006 and 2010 Australia contributed $2,271,505 to the achievement of the goals mentioned above. Has the money been well spent? Has the money (along with that from other donor countries) done anything at all to guarantee that Cambodian elections are free and fair? All the available evidence suggests that the answer is a resounding ‘no’, that the money has been wasted. As for involving the younger generation in the electoral process this has happened not as a result of money spent by donor countries but because young Cambodians now have mobile phones, Facebook accounts and are no longer reliant on government controlled TV, radio and newspapers for information and news. Indeed, through social media, there is now a whole generation of young people who realize that virtually nothing presented to them as truth by the state-controlled media is true.