Monday, September 16, 2013

No more deaths in Phnom Penh. True democracy about to be born?

No more political deaths on the streets of Phnom Penh.

The peaceful demonstrations in Phnom Penh over the past two days have led to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party meeting yesterday to discuss a way out of the political impasse following the hotly disputed July 28th election results.

Prime Minster Hun Sen agreed, in the meeting, to stand down the army and police that have been so conspicuously present in Phnom Penh the past few days. As a new day dawns the razor wire barriers and fire engines are gone and there is not a plexiglass shielded policeman in sight.          

‘Strongman’ Hun Sen is a strong man no more. It is a title he has worn with pride for decades now and one that has reflected his way of ruling the country – crushing all dissent through the courts, through the jailing of critics and opponents and assassination attempts on his only true political rival, Sam Rainsy.

Now Hun Sen (or The Hunster as he is referred to by some of the local media) must sit down with Rainsy and figure out how to solve the current political deadlock - with no further deaths, no more intimidation, but in accordance with Cambodian electoral law and with respect for the rights of the Cambodian people who have made clear that they want Hun Sen and his corrupt cronies running the country no more but are ready for change - for true democracy, for Sam Rainsy and the Cambodian National Rescue Party that he is the President of.

Rainsy is arguably the most powerful man in Cambodia today. His power resides not in being leader of the opposition (Rainsy doesn’t even have a seat in Parliament as he was not allowed to stand in the recent election) but in representing that most seductive of all political ideas – democracy. No one living in Cambodia today has experienced true democracy but they know what it is, they like what they see and they want it now. And chances are that most Cambodians now know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has read the real news on Facebook and knows that all they read in the government controlled press is a litany of lies.

Yesterday was the second day of peaceful protest in Freedom Park in downtown Phnom Penh. It was a day of song and dance and smiling faces – despite the death of the young man the night beforehand and undeterred by the little rain that fell. These were not disaffected young Facebookers from Phmom Penh but men, women and children from the provinces who had interrupted whatever their way of earning a meagre living is to be present in Phnom Penh and to support the man, the party they voted for – Rainsy and the CNRP. Food, water, medicines and lollies were handed out. If there was any one problem for the organizers it was that the CNRP had received donations of more food and water than there were people to consume them. Not that there was not a huge crown. There was. I won’t try to guess what it was but no doubt the local media will fix on the 20,000 figure again!

More important than the numbers was the atmosphere. It was a party. The idea of democracy has well and truly taken hold in Cambodia and, whilst I may be proven wrong, I cannot see how the tide of democratic change can be turned back. The people no longer fear Hun Sen, are no longer cowed by police. A razor wire barricade is not an invitation to stop or be shot but an invitation to tear it down.

It is my great privilege to be in Cambodia during this difficult birth. It has been a long time coming and, whilst there are many people who have acted as midwives this past 15 or so years, the man who deserves the lion’s share of the credit is Sam Rainsy.

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