Cambodia’s ‘one party state’ prepares for polls
‘Can you help me find a VISA so I can leave Cambodia?’ asked our friend Boran one night. ‘I want to go to America, Australia, New Zealand…anywhere’ he said. ‘I’m not sure how safe it will be here after the elections. I want to vote then leave.’
We’d met Boran*, a 31-year-old Khmer (Cambodian) hotel manager from Siem Reap, during our first month in Cambodia. Having become good friends we often sat putting the world to rights talking politics. Scratch the surface and it's hard to avoid politics in Cambodia, especially with national elections looming at the end of the month and a crackdown on media and the opposition removing any possibility of a free and fair vote.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been led by Prime Minister Hun Sen for 33 years, a reign longer than nearly any other world leader. The CPP came to power following the years of turmoil after the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge period, when nearly a third of the population, mostly educated professionals, city dwellers and minorities, lost their lives through ruler Pol Pot's genocidal campaign in the name of an ‘agrarian revolution’.
Cambodia is now a mostly peaceful country and has seen some economic growth in recent years, but is still extremely poor with development lagging behind neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. Many of its 16 million residents lack sanitation facilities, reliable electricity and access to piped water.
The most recent World Bank assessment stated that ‘while Cambodia has achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty in 2009, the vast majority of families who escaped poverty were only able to do so by a small margin. Around 4.5 million people remain near-poor, vulnerable to falling back into poverty when exposed to economic and other external shocks.’
During the last national elections, in September 2013, there were mass public demonstrations amid accusations of result fixing by the CPP. NGOs working in rural areas told us stories of government officials going to villages to teach people how to vote by helping them to fill in example ballot papers. When they turned up on election day they were told they had already voted – having been encouraged to tick the CPP box on the ‘example’ ballot paper. Many people also reported never receiving their ballot papers.
CPP had reason to be concerned: the main opposition in 2013, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), had expectations of a victory in the polls, fuelled significantly by votes from young people who became more politically engaged on social media. Although, amid irregularities, the CNRP did not win enough seats to make it into government, it did take away the two-thirds majority of the CPP which had allowed it to change the constitution.
When Khmers go to polling stations it is still unclear which parties will be listed on the ballot paper since the only viable opposition, the CNRP, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, with hundreds of its politicians banned from politics for five years. While the CNRP themselves have a somewhat chequered history with critics labelling them xenophobic over their anti-Vietnamese stance, this still signalled what Human Rights Watch called the ‘death knell for democracy in the country.’
The CNRP leader Kem Sokha has been in prison since September 2017 awaiting trial for treason after being accused of conspiring with the US to overthrow the government. Cambodia is now effectively a one party state.
The country’s increasingly authoritarian bent has been partly enabled by increasingly strong links with China. With millions pouring in from Beijing to build roads, casinos and resorts, Cambodia is no longer reliant on aid from its traditional partners such as Australia, Japan and Norway who are more likely to insist on a semblance of democracy. Threats to withdraw aid seem to be no cause for concern for Hun Sen who no longer has to comply with their human rights and democratic requirements in return for financial assistance.
Further cause for concern is the increased CPP control of media. Citing ‘breach of contract’ the government took 15 independent radio stations off the air in 2017. Sudden hefty tax bills caused the closure of the Cambodia Daily newspaper and the only remaining independent title, The Phnom Penh Post, has just been bought by a Malaysian company with close links to Hun Sen.
Many observers see this as the end of independent reporting in the country – at a crucial point just ahead of the country’s elections. Many independent journalists have already left the country or gone into hiding, amid rising fears of imprisonment if they are caught criticizing the government.
Social media has gone from being a tool for Khmers to air their feelings and connect with the outside world to becoming closely monitored and used as a tool for Hun Sen to control news. A woman was jailed in March after posting a video of herself on Facebook throwing a shoe at a CPP billboard, in what Amnesty International described as a ‘chilling example’ of the government’s monitoring of Cambodians. Sam Sokha's conviction and extradition from Thailand, where she fled after the government sought her arrest, was being used to ‘silence or scare others’, said an Amnesty spokesperson. Giant billboards advertising CPP are everywhere - along highways, in villages and rice paddy fields.
Despite this environment, many Khmers remained keen to talk politics, albeit quietly and discreetly, aware of the serious and very real risks involved. Among some of the older Cambodians we spoke to, especially those who lived through the horrific Khmer Rouge period, there is a feeling of ‘better the devil you know’ – despite Prime Minister Hun Sen also once being a member of the Khmer Rouge party. As one woman cynically told us, ‘Why vote for someone new? They’ll just want to get rich from us. Hun Sen’s family are already rich from us, he doesn’t need any more money.’ But the views of many others are beginning to turn against the CPP.
Jackie, the lead at an NGO providing food for children said that many of the Khmers she works with are not able to think beyond the present, with feeding your family today being more important than deciding who to vote for to ensure they are fed in the future. Having financial security provides a buffer against political and economic shocks and more time to think more about political issues. Talking over breakfast with Wei-Ting, a Taiwanese property developer, it was suggested that ‘it’s all bravado, all show’, with him predicting that Hun Sen would release the opposition leader just ahead of the election date, not leaving him enough time to pose a credible threat. ‘Things will be fine!’ he said.
Positive words from someone who himself had to flee back to Taiwan in 1997 during Hun Sen’s bloody coup d’etat against Sen’s then co-Prime Minister.
Cambodia has a large expatriate population and many work for NGOs providing important services – such as providing meals for children and health care services – which many consider could, and should, be fulfilled by the government. In the Angkor Wat temple complex, the jewel in Cambodia’s tourist crown which attracted 2.4 million visitors and $108 million in ticket sales in 2017, many villages still rely on food and basic medical aid provided by such NGOs.
In the last two years NGOs working in Cambodia have had to operate under extremely tightened regulations and have been subject to increased government monitoring which the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights called ‘deeply undemocratic’. A government contractor from Britain said that many feel this is the outcome of CPP being more and more concerned about the influence of international NGOs who might be spreading anti-government feeling.
Some expats are also starting to get spooked. Sheila, a British teacher working in Siem Reap, told us many of her colleagues were very worried about violence on the streets around election time and that her employer ‘strongly advised’ her to leave, while a regular visitor to the capital Phnom Penh told us that there was now ‘a very noticeable military presence on street corners, completely different to when I was there last year.’ Indeed, in what seems to be consolidation of power in the run up to the elections, Hung Sen has appointed close family members to key military positions.
Several people we spoke to were also seriously concerned about the possibility of civil war, due to rising frustrations around the lack of alternative opposition and ever increasing inequality. If the CPP retain power – as now seems almost certain – many feel there is only so long that the population will endure the status quo. As one young activist told us: ‘Maybe not now, maybe not next year, but when the people have nothing left….then they will fight.’
The international community has begun to take more notice of the challenges to democracy and human rights happening in Cambodia. In March, 45 countries made a joint statement to the UN requesting the release of the opposition leader and free and fair elections – but a change of course from Hun Sen seems unlikely.
With only weeks to go until the 29 July elections the general mood on the street is a uneasy mix of fear, frustration – and a sense that, in previous elections, they’ve been here before.
‘The Cambodian people want things to change,’ Boran told us. ‘We’ve had the same corrupt government for over 30 years. There’s so much poverty, people work so hard. We just want free elections and a balance between the rich and the poor’
*Some names have been changed.