Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hanging out with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who looks thrilled to be there. (Photo via)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is losing his grip on power. After holding his position for 28 years, his party – the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) – are facing their first ever loss in an election. Since coming to power, the Hun Sen and the CPP have used violence to keep their heels dug firmly in at the head of the political spectrum, and with a 6,000-strong private army it's no surprise that, thus far, they've managed to do a good job of doing so.
But with better education and an increase in internet access, the country's youth are ready for change. The opposition party – the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy – claimed they had been victorious in last week's vote. But then so did the CPP. Cambodia hasn't had a non-violent transition of power since the 1960s, and the fall-out from the latest election results isn't likely to break that tradition.
Many went to vote last Sunday, only to be told when they arrived that they had in fact already voted, or that their names weren't on the electoral register. Later that day, monks and other men who had been denied a vote rioted at a polling station in Phnom Penh. Two police pick-ups were flipped over, their petrol tanks ripped open and set alight, sending flames and smoke pouring out into the evening sky.
Yin Kim Sien, the National Election Committee (NEC) staff member present, had locked herself inside the polling station. The mob chanted, “Justice!” and “We want to vote!” Dissatisfied with the reception they were getting, they turned their rage on a man they believed to be ethnic Vietnamese. He knelt, his hands in the sampeah gesture [a traditional Cambodian greeting and way of showing respect], as a man punched him in the side of the head. When the riot died down, the injured man was taken to hospital and Yim Kim Sien escaped unharmed.
That evening, the CPP announced the results of the election. They claimed they had won 68 seats against CNRP’s 55. It was a significant loss of 22 seats for the CPP. The CNRP immediately pointed out massive irregularities in the voting. Transparency International Cambodia agreed. On their website, they stated, “In 60 percent of polling stations, citizens with proper identification were unable to find their names on this list,” adding that, “voters showed up to discover they had been voted for already”. The CNRP called for an independent body to investigate voting irregularities.
On Wednesday I met Mu Sochua, a CNRP member of parliament, at her party headquarters in Phnom Penh. Outside on the balcony, party leader Sam Rainsy led a crowd in chants calling for Hun Sen to step down. Mu Sochua ate an apple, her greying hair tied up in a tight bun.
“Today, we are collecting signatures from everyone denied the chance to vote as proof that fraud happened,” she told me. "We will present this to the NEC as evidence.” She continued: “We hope to instigate a full re-election depending on the scope of the irregularities.” Outside, Sam Rainsy declared, “No one can buy us, no one can break us, no one can intimidate us.”
“They have a policy to ethnically cleanse the Vietnamese,” said CPP spokesman, Phay Siphan, in response. “They [the CNRP] use an old rhetoric of corruption and anti-Vietnamese sentiments. And the CNRP list is a fabrication; they have no evidence to support their claims.” Siphan continued: “Sam Rainsy called for Hun Sen to step down, but that’s not fair because it’s the people’s choice, not the choice of politicians. And the popular vote has shown that the people favour the CPP.”
Back in the provinces, the bullying and bribery continued. I live in a Cambodian village, where I work for a small NGO in my spare time. Before the start of the elections I returned home and found Supon, the village teacher, waiting for me. He wore a white cap and polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He put down the election pamphlet he was flicking through and ushered me inside.
“You know the opposition party – the CNRP?” he asked. “I was spotted marching for the opposition party and now,” – he paused, his face grey with fear – “the CPP… they want to arrest me."
"But you haven’t done anything,” I said. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied, “they make up the charges.” He hung his head: "Because I work with you, it's not safe for you to be here – they could say you are a spy and arrest you.”
Pring, a young man from my village, told me, "The village chief called my father to a meeting. Everyone had to swear before the village ancestors that they would vote for CPP. If they swear, they get paid 10,000 Riel (£1.60).” That might not seem like a lot, but the average annual wage for a rural Cambodian is approximately £90.
Despite threats, Pring estimates that about 50 percent of the people in the village voted for CNRP, including him, his mother and his sister. “Now the village chief is very angry with us,” he told me. “He doesn’t want other people to have communication with us because we voted for another party, so we lost the clients who buy our rice.”
Yesterday, the CNRP urged its supporters to be patient and await further instructions. The NEC has begun to release the final vote counts and early signs show that the CPP won by a mere 250,000 votes in a country of 40 million. But given all the allegations of cheating, it’s not looking good for Hun Sen. He has now agreed to participate in an investigation, although whether the UN or any other international observers will be involved is unclear.
The story is far from over. But for now I’m glad to say that my friend Supon avoided jail, most likely because he's related to the local CPP chief. “I think there will be further demonstrations,” he told me on the phone. “People will protest the results of the election and I am afraid the government will use guns.”
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