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Cambodia's democracy sees a critical shift

Protesters watch as a police car is set on fire at a election polling station in Phnom Penh on July 28. Cambodian voters angry that they could not find their names on the voters

Protesters watch as a police car is set on fire at a election polling station in Phnom Penh on July 28. Cambodian voters angry that they could not find their names on the voters

The entrenched regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has won another poll victory, but the country's opposition is capable of taking over in the not-too-distant future

The after-effects of the thrilling Cambodian national elections are still being felt, and change is very much in the air.

From 1977 to 1979 I lived in Vientiane, Laos, and from 1988 to 1990 in Bangkok. On both occasions, despite its physical proximity, neighbouring Cambodia seemed immensely distant, caught up as it was then in the horrors of war and brutal dictatorships.

I became intrigued by Cambodia for more prosaic reasons at first ... an ornate papier mache model of Angkor Wat hung in my living room, and I liked to stare at it.

As I developed an interest in politics, I decided that it would be almost impossible for me to visit Cambodia. For the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime had been replaced by a Vietnamese-backed state that the rest of the world seemed determined not to recognise.

Back then, I couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't support a new government over the Khmer Rouge maniacs. Sure, leaders Hun Sen and Heng Samrin were ex-Khmer Rouge themselves, but surely their rule was preferable to that of Pol Pot's homicidal savagery?

It took me a while to realise that international governments were going for political convenience over the actual benefit for the Cambodian people's lives. It also dawned on me that different sects of communists were as bountiful and diverse as the many sects of the religion I was raised in.

Still, despite the demonised portrait of Pol Pot, and the (then) youthful if shifty figure of Hun Sen figuring prominently, it was Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk who stood out most.

I remember my parents coming back from a diplomatic function with a cassette of ethnic-tinged classical music composed by Sihanouk, and as I listened to it, I used to ruminate on what a tragic figure he had become. Despite being in the record books for various terms as King, Prince, President and Prime Minister, Sihanouk and his family had suffered greatly under the Khmer Rouge and yet he was forced to work with them.

At that point in the early 1990s, I still leaned strongly towards Hun Sen, whom I saw as the face of the future.

Cambodia's return to democracy in the 1990s was not altogether smooth - Sihanouk's sons Norodom Ranarindh and Norodom Chakrapong had to flee after losing out in power struggles, as did opposition leader Sam Rainsy at a later juncture.

In 2004, I fulfilled my dream of going to Cambodia. The country still had a feel of recovering from war, as most roads were still dirt roads and the exchange rate meant prices were ridiculously cheap (I recall a room in a converted colonial bungalow with cable TV, hot water and air-conditioning costing less than US$3).

To me, Angkor Wat was magical, one place that truly lived up to the hype surrounding it. The vision of the great Khmer kings like Suryavarman II bore testament to a time when the Khmer kingdom was one of the most civilised and progressive societies on the planet, and it thoroughly captured my heart.

This week, Cambodia is at another crossroads. Now, Hun Sen is the entrenched leader whom some feel might have stayed on too long. Elections last week saw a very strong result by an opposition that merged into a single party called the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Even though the CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was not allowed to contest the election, the party enjoyed a massive swing and very nearly toppled Hun Sen's long-dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The end result was CPP 68, CNRP 55.

In spite of that shift, Hun Sen is clinging on to power, and an emboldened opposition is challenging the results.

Cambodian journalist Chhang Long Heng told me that while Rainsy has done well, he finds the result "unacceptable due to irregularities". Rainsy's supporters have taken to the streets and, despite a number of incidents such as that in which two police cars were torched, violence has generally been avoided.

All this despite a relatively robust economic growth rate, estimated by Chhang at 7 per cent.

"Economic growth depends on the garment section, construction, real estate, agriculture and especially tourism."

It is partly because of the latter that Hun Sen now finds himself playing a delicate balancing act between a threat to his rule and containing a vociferous opposition.

Sihanouk's son, King Norodom Sihamoni, has largely stayed out of this thrilling political conflict.

Andrew Anderson, deputy director of human rights group Front Line Defenders, says of Cambodia: "The result of the election is very much unexpected to observers of Cambodian politics.

"Many human rights defenders whom Front Line Defenders spoke to did not expect that the opposition could get a 30-seat increase from the last election, given that this election was held in a manner far from what we can call free and fair.

"This is due to a number of factors including the opposition leader not being allowed to run in the election, threats of violence against opposition parties and civil society activists, and the television/radio channels mainly broadcasting the government's policies and campaigns."

As with other countries, social media has played a huge role in shaping political discourse.

"The increasing role of young people and social media appear to have affected the result," adds Anderson.

It remains to be seen if Hun Sen can avoid using bully tactics of the past such as coercing the opposition legislators to defect. One hope is that the ruling party has the foresight to recognise the desire for change and allow society to heal and the nation as a whole to progress.

The alternative - a return to civil war and strife - simply doesn't bear thinking about.






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