Rumble in the Jungle

Can anyone unseat Hun Sen's dictatorship by democracy in Cambodia?

Nicolas Axelrod/Getty Images
Nicolas Axelrod/Getty Images

PHNOM PENH — Armed with a surprise royal pardon, Cambodia’s veteran opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped into the steamy Phnom Penh air on July 19 to a delirious welcome from an estimated 100,000 people.

After four years of exile in France, to escape from what most regard as trumped-up charges of falsifying documents and disinformation that saw him sentenced in absentia to 11 years in prison in 2010, Rainsy returned a hero — but with just nine days of campaigning left before his party faced the polls.

Hope was in the air for the infectiously excitable young crowd — about two-thirds of Cambodia’s population is under 30. They chanted the question in unison: "Change? No change?" and answered with the resounding: "Change, change, change!" The country’s urban youth was, for the first time, making a very public statement of its preferences.

Rainsy harks from a distinguished but controversial Cambodian political dynasty. He fled the country for the first time in 1965, after his politician father disappeared in suspicious circumstances. He settled in France, where he still holds a passport, and worked as a banker and accountant before returning, rising to become finance minister in 1993 for the Royalist Funcinpec Party. That year, the party’s leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was forced into an uneasy coalition with current Prime Minister-cum-dictator Hun Sen. The next year, Rainsy was expelled; in a 1997 coup Hun removed Ranariddh and has been ruling ever since. But Rainsy remained active in political life. He set up his own party, which won 18 percent of seats in the 2003 election, and boosted its representation in the last poll in 2008.

But Hun reigns supreme. The 60-year-old former Khmer Rouge guerrilla with no formal education has consolidated power for his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) over the last 28 years, under the fig leaf of the constitutional monarchy — by using the apparatus of the state to dispatch his competition. He says he wants at least another decade at the top and is busy creating a dynasty by installing at least a dozen family members — including his three sons — in key military and political positions.

Last year, Rainsy and Kem Sokha, a leading human rights campaigner since the 1990s and another opposition stalwart, united to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in what may be their last chance to upset the political balance, before it’s too late. Though they can’t reasonably hope to unseat Hun, they could possibly force him to form a coalition — if they can garner enough seats in the July 28 election being contested by eight parties.

On Wednesday, Rainsy and Sokha were on the campaign trail in Siem Reap, a shabby provincial center notable only as the jumping-off point for Angkor Wat. There is nowhere more symbolic for the nation’s struggling 15 million people than the awe-inspiring ancient temple complex. It is at once both a symbol for the country’s Khmer people of the mighty empire they once ruled and, in its semi-ruin, of the country’s decline.

The opposition veterans ended their four-hour parade through the pot-holed streets of the town at the verge of the wide stone causeway to Angkor Wat’s entrance. Rainsy and Sokha stood on crates atop a truck, addressing tens of thousands of people who had followed them in a convoy the eight miles from town.

Rainsy railed at the corrupt government and its relationship with Vietnam. The long, bloody history between the two nations is the source of much of Rainsy’s rhetoric, and it’s a potent political message in this country. For centuries, the Khmer ruled over a kingdom stretching from Thailand in the west to Vietnam in the east to Malaysia in the south. In the early 1400s, the roles were reversed with Cambodia becoming a vassal state to Vietnam and Thailand, only to come under French rule in 1863. Vietnam invaded the country in 1979 to overthrow the brutal genocidal regime of Pol Pot, assisted by a Khmer Rouge splinter group led by Hun. Links between Hun and Hanoi have remained strong ever since. 

"We need to promote and protect the symbol of our nation — Angkor Wat temple," Rainsy said to cheers from the crowd. "We need to take Angkor Wat back from the Vietnamese." His message referred to Solimex, the company that runs the complex and which is owned by Oknha Sok Kong, an ethnic Vietnamese Cambodian businessman. The claim is unabashedly nationalistic, though Rainsy and Sokha have a broader platform: a better social safety net, a crackdown on corruption, and more jobs for the nation’s frustrated youth.

"I have seen that the economy of Mr. Hun Sen is headed the wrong way. Cambodians have no jobs to do and migrate oversees to Thailand," Rainsy said to the assembled crowd.

But his stirring words could be for naught. On Thursday, Rainsy was refused a place on the ballot for the second time in a week — and there’s no time left to register before the National Electoral Commission’s deadline. Rainsy argues his pardons should have automatically reinstalled his right to contest the race. But, for the time being, it appears that the CNRP and other smaller opposition parties are simply left to field local candidates across the country.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, the main non-partisan election monitoring organization has noted serious irregularities already, including voter registrations at over 100 percent in some areas, security forces openly participating in pro-government campaigning, and voter intimidation at opposition rallies.

It would certainly be tough for Hun’s Cambodian People’s Party to run on its record alone. With a gross national income of $880 per capita each year, Cambodia’s people are the poorest in Southeast Asia, after Myanmar. About half the government’s budget is provided by foreign aid. Roughly 80 percent of Cambodian workers are subsistence farmers, with about 35 percent eking out a living on just $0.60 per day, well below the international poverty line. And state-sanctioned land theft is rampant. Perhaps worst of all, Cambodia’s children are getting smaller with each generation for lack of nutrition — and if they go to school at all, it’s minimal: primary schoolers in state curricula get just four hours a day.

In addition to impoverishing its own people, Cambodia is now emerging as a regional wild card that could prove the thorn in the side of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will in 2015 create its own trade bloc. As Myanmar wriggles out of Beijing’s suffocating embrace, Cambodia is now China’s main regional friend. And as the United States steps up engagement with Asia, Cambodia is emerging as a player in all the wrong ways.

Last June, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN’s annual meeting, it refused to sign a communiqué that would have expressed a unified stance on China’s jaw-dropping claim to the entire South China Sea — where it is in dispute with seven of its neighbors but refuses to engage in multilateral negotiations.

Cambodia is not a party to the disputes itself, but its rulers are increasingly reliant on China’s largesse. By kyboshing the communiqué, it has put itself squarely in China’s corner against its neighbors and the United States, ratcheting up security concerns and adding fuel to the region’s already alarming arms race. In December, Cambodia joined that race in its own small way: taking delivery of 100 tanks and 40 armed personnel carriers.

Last November, Barack Obama made the first-ever trip by a U.S. president to Cambodia — a visit made through gritted teeth and only in order to attend the East Asia Summit. In a private meeting pointedly described later by U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as "tense," Obama admonished Hun, urging him to end human rights abuses, halt land theft, and to hold free and fair elections.

Hun’s pardon of Rainsy and his token nod to a fair election (the king is effectively his rubber stamp, so complete is Hun’s control of the country) appears to be his only concession to Washington’s concerns.

And yet Rainsy’s support appears widespread — there were factory managers, hospitality workers, students, tuk-tuk drivers, even police, among his supporters at the extremely well-attended rallies I attended over the past week, although reports from smaller towns said crowds were thinner.

"The government does nothing with my taxes, they don’t help old people, when I am old they will give me nothing," said Sopha, a manager of a motorbike factory waiting to catch a glimpse of Rainsy on the road into Phnom Penh. "There are no jobs for young people. We need to see if someone else can do a better job."

Foreign diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the public display of support for the opposition is unprecedented in a country where the censors allow no mention of other parties on television or in Khmer-language newspapers, and where the government’s security apparatus has eyes and ears everywhere. Hun likely holds an advantage in the countryside thanks to his peasant background and links to the Khmer Rouge. People there also have little access to non-state run media sources. Plus, the country’s gerrymandered election gives far more weight to votes from rural areas.

If Hun wins comfortably, Cambodia’s latest tragedy is likely to continue. Hun and his CPP elite will continue to get richer, while the country risks sliding backward into something resembling junta-era Myanmar. If somehow, implausibly, the opposition were to win, Hun has already issued dark warnings of "civil war." In a country where there are no reliable polls, it’s almost impossible to tell what will happen on Sunday, although few beyond the opposition faithful believe there is much chance of change.

Still, the flurry of excitement over the election can be seen as a promising development: the return of Rainsy, the increasing numbers of young voters, and the improved flow of information thanks to social media, has given the country its first taste, in a long time, of what real electoral politics feels like.

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