Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Facebook rumours of imminent Cambodia coups and other Chinese whispers

There was no coup yesterday. It was just another Facebook rumour. Facebook has its good points, allowing people to stay in real-time contact, share information and mobilze but it can also be the home of false rumours passed from one user to another in a digital Chinese whisper.
At one point yesterday, in Sam Rainsy’s car chatting with him, I received a text message that he was, at that moment, leading a march of 800 demonstrators to the National Assembly. Where and how these rumours start is a mystery but they soon take on a life of their own and are accepted as fact if heard from multiple sources. “How could so many people be wrong?”
All in quiet in Phnom Penh this Thursday. Other than a couple of burnt police cars on the day, the elections have been singularly free of violence, itself a sign of progress in a country in which intimidation and murder have been regular features of previous elections. The cheating on the part of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seems to have been confined to guaranteeing that more than a million voters in districts where Rainsy is very popular, had no opportunity to vote. It is hard to overestimate the effect that Rainsy has on people when he appears, when she speaks. He is greeted like a rock star.
Rainsy has insisted that there be an independent investigation into why these million voters could not cast their ballots – an investigation involving both political parties and independent observers. The ruling CPP initially rejected such an investigation as unnecessary but has, this past 24 hours, agreed to participate. “They have no choice,” says Rainsy. Neither the Cambodian people nor the international donor community will accept the results as they stand at present. There are simply too many well documented ‘irregularities’. As everyone knows, when demonstrations begin, things can get ugly.
So how does a filmmaker get to be making a film about the leader of the opposition party in Cambodia? In 1998, working as a one man band on another documentary, CHANTI’S WORLD, I decided to spend a few months covering the Cambodian elections from the perspective of Sam Rainsy. The previous year Rainsy had survived an assassination attempt. A hand grenade was thrown into the middle of a peaceful demonstration he was holding calling for the reform of the Cambodian judiciary. Ten demonstrators died.
Rainsy struck me as a man passionately committed to seeing true democracy flourish in his country and not fearful for his own safety. A man with a mission, which, when I asked him about it, he replied, “I want to bring my people out of the darkness and into the light.” Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had lost the previous election but managed to stay in power with a variety of stratagems, including a coup, won a landslide victory in the 1998 election. The evidence that Hun Sen owed his victory to massive fraud was overwhelming but all appeals were dismissed by the National Electoral Committee, made up of supporters of Hun Sen’s CPP party.
No broadcaster in the world was interested in a documentary about the leader of an opposition party in a small south east Asian country who loses an election and, after all, as the BBC told me, “John Pilger has done Cambodia.” So, I shelved the project thinking that one day in the future there will be another election and perhaps in that one Rainsy will win. So, within an hour of my hearing that Rainsy had received a pardon from the King I had booked a flight to Phnom Penh and here I am covering the aftermath of yet another election that the CPP insists Rainsy has lost and which Rainsy insists that he has won. If Rainsy is eventually declared the winner and becomes Prime Minister there will, I hope, be interest in my documentary. If he does not win I suspect that there will be little broadcaster interest in a doco about an opposition leader who has failed yet again to wrest power from the incumbent Prime Minister. Such is the life of an independent filmmaker. 

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