Totalitarian Tourism in Cambodia

I went to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters to meet Sam Rainsy, the controversial opposition leader who has a habit of leaving his colleagues red-faced while trying to explain away his gaffes. Despite his slip-ups, Rainsy seems to...

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Mar 3 2014, 2:00pm

Photos by Victoria Hesketh

Cambodia hasn't been a happy place as of late. When I was there on vacation recently, striking garment factory workers had just been shot at by police, leading to five deaths and many more injuries. Since then, various labor and human rights organizations have hammered the Cambodian government for its violent response, citing this as evidence that it's "more concerned with protecting the interests and profits of the employers [...] than the workers' rights to a decent living wage."

The country's poor human rights situation is an important issue among members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). When I turned up at the party's headquarters—a day after following CNRP MP Mu Sochua as she gave money to hospitalized protesters—the morning buzz was that 11 CNRP activists had been aggressively rounded-up and detained by police.

The activists had been circulating petitions to foreign embassies, highlighting the arrest of 22 individuals at the recent garment worker demonstrations and the fact that they're being held at the notoriously secretive CC3 jail, on the border with Vietnam. But they'd made a mistake; people in the office were saying that there were only supposed to be nine of them if they were to get around the country's new protest ban, which specifies that the gathering of more than ten people in one place at a time constitutes a demonstration. 

Sam Rainsy

I was at the CNRP headquarters to meet Sam Rainsy, the controversial opposition leader who has a habit of leaving his colleagues red-faced while trying to explain away his gaffes. Think of him like Ted Nugent in that sense, only, instead of being a washed-up musician whose association with members of the Republican party is often serves a point of minor embarrassment, he's the president of Cambodia's main opposition party.     

One recent blunder was his comment that the Cambodia prime minister, Hun Sen, was "weaker than a woman," spurring a frenzy of backtracking, not least from his colleague, the famous women's-rights activist Mu Sochua.

Inside the CNRP office

Aside from the flippant sexist remarks, Rainsy also stands accused of stoking anti-Vietnamese xenophobia to win support among a population still harboring bitter memories of the recent occupation by its neighbor.

When I asked him about this, he tried to dismiss it as "a fashionable cliché," before immediately contradicting himself and labeling Vietnam a combination of Nazi Germany and imperialist Russia. "For a European observer, it's maybe useful to compare Cambodia to Poland," he said. "We cannot say that the Polish people are anti-German or anti-Russian. But if you look at Poland’s history, it has been squeezed like a sandwich between Germany and Russia. Poland once even disappeared from the map of the world. [It's similar to] the fear [held by] the Poles... At least up to the Cold War, the Poles were afraid of the Germans and of the Russians, but they were not racist."

We headed to the parking lot, where a crowd was gathering before a rally in Hun Sen's home constituency of Kandal province. After ten panicked minutes of aides frantically accusing each other of losing the keys to one of the party's black Lexuses, we were hustled into the back of a 4x4. Some CNRP security (all unpaid volunteers and full-time tuk-tuk drivers) hopped in, and we joined the small convoy on the hour trip out of Phnom Penh. Rainsy, we were told, would follow. 

As we approached Kandal, everyone in the car was getting visibly excited. A load of the young CNRP supporters noticed our official vehicle and began cheering and whooping, and the closer we got, the bigger and more boisterous the gaggles and van loads of Rainsy-ites became. Grinning kids in fake New Era caps threw up seven finger salutes, representing the CNRP position on the election ballot papers back in July: last.

CPP members man the Kandal party office.

Pulling into Kandal, we began to spot supporters of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) among the crowd, and the atmosphere shifted from that kind of jubilant, pre-festival tailgate hype to something a lot more sinister. The CPP presence wasn't a surprise, but today would be our first experience of the state-endorsed civilian militia we'd heard terrifying tales about.

Peppering the hordes making their way toward the province center were gangs of police, walking alongside the plain-clothed militia. Members had taken care to hide their faces, either with motorcycle helmets—nicknamed "blackheads"—or with surgical masks, clearly in a bid to intimidate the opposition.

We stood among the appreciative crowd for a few minutes before our security guard, Sareth Van, urgently called us back into the car. With the CPP's thugs never too far off, we were told not to leave the vehicle or attract any more attention. Various heated conversations took place over walkie-talkies, and after a tense 15 minutes of garbled exchanges we were told that we would be turning back to Phnom Penh. The rally was canceled. Rainsy would not be attending.

"The situation here is not secure," Van explained, gesturing across the road to the pick 'n' mix of police and militia gathered in the shadows of a local temple. He told me that he thought the CPP thugs were mostly mercenaries with no political leanings, just there because they were paid to be by the government. "They tell us that if His Excellency Sam Rainsy arrives and the ceremony continues, it will be destroyed and there will be much violence," he said.

Police and militia gather in the grounds of a Kandal temple.

Back at CNRP HQ, we caught a disappointed Rainsy. “We had to abort. We will not fall into the trap of violence. This is a key policy," he said.

CNRP security guards

Arguably the most thorough criticism of Rainsy—above calling him out for sexist jibes or alleged anti-Vietnamese slurs—is the lack of substance to his key manifesto points, which sound like something out of a political fairy tale: a doubling of worker wages and real pensions. But as former finance minister, he seems sure that he can back up his policies by tackling corruption.

"Our corruption translates into figures that can be very easily understood," he assures me. "Our tax collection lost via black-market transactions literally kills this country… By curbing a little of this poisoning corruption, we could assign much more money to pensions and easily double factory wages."

Cambodia was recently named one of the most corrupt countries in the region, and ex–World Bank president James Wolfensohn said, in 2005, that the three problems in Cambodia are "corruption, corruption, and corruption," so Rainsy might have a point.

The man is clearly a populist, a theme that continued while he talked about wages. "We're asking the wrong questions," he said. "When you cannot afford to give someone enough to live as a human being—and they've proven many times that $100 a month [the minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers] is not enough here—and there's mass fainting at work because they don't eat and have to work double time—then the rest must be wrong.

"We need to ask what is the minimum to live like a human? Not what can we afford to pay to keep factories afloat in the current climate. The climate is wrong. Rather than point fingers at workers as a distraction, we've proven that if you curb government and economic corruption by law, you can find more money. Then, one day, we can maybe build more confidence around our own currency, so eventually we can compete economically."

Whatever you read about Sam Rainsy, he at least seems to be talking about Cambodia's problems in a more direct way than the CPP. And after hearing what the people have to say, it might be a good idea for the ruling party to also address the widespread disaffection and anger in the country in a more meaningful way than they have done previously.

For example, the most recent acknowledgement was Hun Sen's bizarre tirade at the opening of a charity village for children, where he ended up ranting unprovoked about calls for him to step down, declaring that Surya Subedi, the UN's special rapporteur in Cambodia, had told him he didn't have to. 

But many of those who have endured the CPP regime are less than optimistic about the possibility for any real change under the current government. The protest ban that had been in place since January was lifted last week, so all the opposition can do for now is mount more demonstrations in the vague hope that they'll make a difference. 

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