Election frenzy is at full pitch in Cambodia. The election is in mere days, on July 28, and it’s nearly impossible to walk through one of its cities without being held up by an enthusiastic political rally, waving flags from motorbikes, trucks, and tractors.
While visiting Phnom Penh last week, I met with a friend for drinks on a rooftop bar. It was the day that Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the opposition party, had returned to Cambodia after being pardoned from some more than dubious political charges.
His supporters made their way up the street in a motorcade and our waiters looked at it, looked at us, and then apologized, they had to go down to the street. It’s their party and they needed to show their support.
We gave them our blessing and they went. I have never seen employees abandon their posts to demonstrate their political support during an election in Canada. It’s heartening to see here.
Yet for all the enthusiasm, the general consensus is that the election will change nothing, and the current prime minister will continue his 27-year autocratic reign. Hun Sen, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. Already, he is one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world.
A Cambodian friend explains that though he has his own political opinions, he has to vote for the ruling party. His uncle is a big supporter of Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and each ballot is numbered, so if he votes for another party his uncle will know and it will cause trouble for his family. “What’s the point?” he asks. “They might as well fill out the ballot for me and save me the time.”
The election is a formality. Articles casually describe how Hun Sen will win the election on Sunday, no need to count the ballots. As Freedom House asserts, Cambodia is not free, and neither are its elections.
As it happens, I’ve recently moved to Cambodia and so am devouring everything I can read about the country, with a particular interest in what has been written about the first Cambodian elections, which were sponsored by the United Nations 20 years ago, in 1993.
The three books I’m reading offer distinct perspectives on the election, from the personal to the academic, and the idealistic to the cynical.
Journalist Tiziano Terzani’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East falls firmly on the cynical side of the spectrum. He largely views the election as an exercise in absolving the West’s guilt for failing to act during the genocide. Writing about the fallout from the Khmer Rouge and the international community’s determination to get the country back on its feet, he says:
“And so, for little Cambodia, the ‘Great Powers’ had found one those solutions that serve to justify any immorality: a compromise. [...] the massacres were forgotten, executioners and victims were put on the same level, the combatants on both sides were asked to lay down their arms, and their chiefs to stand for election. May the best man win! As if Cambodia in 1993 were the Athens of Pericles.”
Offering a more idealistic view (though it cannot be described as an idealistic book) is Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, a memoir by three UN workers. Heidi Postlewait, one of the authors, describes working at a polling station in rural Cambodia:
“At daybreak on the first day, thousands of Cambodians are already calmly waiting outside my polling station. They squat on the ground, silent and patient. We didn’t expect this at all. We thought they would fail to understand how democracy works. We thought they would be afraid of the Khmer Rouge. We thought they would passively accept their fate. We were wrong.”
It paints a beautiful picture of a fledging democracy, where over 90% of Cambodians cast a ballot in that first election. This rosy view is challenged by professor and former journalist Joel Brinkley. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Brinkley describes the election violence that Postlewait was fortunate enough to avoid:
“Khmer Rouge gunners shelled polling and police stations in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, and elsewhere. Election workers fled; several were killed.”
He further describes the various politicking in the aftermath of the election, describing how “Cambodia’s leaders, all of them, were plotting, scheming, bribing, and backstabbing to come out on top, as if the election had never taken place.”
Eventually, Hun Sen assumed full control of the government, despite the fact that he had lost the election (minor detail). Twenty years later, he’s still in power and Cambodia’s elections arguably have as little impact as they did then.
So twenty years later, it is easy to side with Terzani and Brinkley’s cynical assessment of the impact of Cambodia’s first elections. What has changed? Same prime minister, same endemic corruption, same political repression, everything same same.
Yet it’s possible to channel some of Postlewait’s optimism if you are take solace in small signs of progress. No, the opposition leader has not been allowed to run in this election, but he has been allowed back into the country. And countries like Myanmar demonstrate that decades of political repression can crack at any time.
Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism comes from the attitudes of Cambodians themselves. Just as there’s a consensus that nothing will change this election, there seems to be a growing belief that there could be real change in the next election, five years from now. “Change” is a word on their lips – people are changing their minds, things have changed since the last election, when there wasn’t such support for the opposition. Maybe things will change next election.
It’s a much slower pace of change than many would like, and certainly slower than many accustomed to healthy democracies would tolerate. But Postlewait was right to be inspired by the resolute determination of Cambodians voting in their first election twenty years ago, and her optimism is worth keeping alive. So a slower pace of change is what those of us who care about Cambodia will have to be content with.