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As Election Approaches, Cambodia’s Parties Offer Little Hope


PHNOM PENH — As one approaches the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Boulevards in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 District, a mansion of impressive size and grandeur can be observed. Located adjacent to, of all things, the North Korean embassy to Cambodia, this awesome house belongs to Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia. That title has not changed hands since 1985, save for a brief spell in the 1990s against a backdrop of continuing civil strife.

Under the shade of a nearby tree, a homeless man defecates in a plastic bag. Another person is carrying an older man suffering from an apparent deformity on a wheeled cart, begging passing cars and pedestrians for change. Tuk tuks and motodups line the streets, men who are lucky to make a few dollars a day shuffling commuters across the city.

The juxtaposition is a powerful reminder that, despite Cambodia’s economic gains over the years, including the emergence of a small but growing upper class of Lexus driving elites, many people have been left behind.

In six weeks, Cambodians will go to the polls in the country’s first national elections in a decade. The process of voting will take place over a three day period from July 27-29.

As one can imagine, a political leader in a nation of the “Global South” who has maintained such a strong grip on the levers of power for nearly three decades is not likely to simply walk away if the elections results are unfavorable.

Thus, Prime Minister Hun Sen has ramped up the rhetoric in recent weeks. This space has, in the past, detailed some of the more nefarious crackdowns of this regime. These have included the jailing of journalists, and the attempt at covering up the murder of an environmental activist last year. Now, Mr. Hun Sen is warning of renewed civil war should his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) lose the elections.

Additional threats pertaining to the rollback of land reforms have been pontificated by CPP leaders should the election results not be to their satisfaction. Moreover, others have speculated that social media websites such as Facebook might be shutdown during the election period.

Elections and the ability for citizens to change their government are a prerequisite for any democracy. But free and fair elections are not the only condition which needs to be met to meet the international standard definition of the term. There must also be a lack of corruption, transparency, and rights pertaining to freedom of speech, and to protest and organize.

With respect to the former two points, Cambodia was recently ranked 157th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. And no, it is not a good thing to be ranked so low, amongst countries such as Zimbabwe, Congo, and Tajikistan.

With respect to the latter point, we were reminded of the lack of worker’s rights just last week when demonstrators at a Nike factory in Kampong Speu province were smacked around by police using stun batons. Most of the protestors were women. They were making the outrageous demand of a $14 per month increase of their $74 per month salary. The average rent for a Cambodian living in the provinces is $50 per month.

However, all of these facts notwithstanding, perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Cambodian politics is the stance taking by the main opposition parties.

A spokesperson for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP)  recently questioned the validity of the genocide orchestrated by the ultra Maoist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Sam Rainsy, the head of an opposition party of his own name, has also made controversial statements in the past relating to the genocide, which historians estimate killed between 1.5-2 million people from 1975-1979. Mr. Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in a Parisian penthouse which is just as impressive as Mr. Hun Sen’s home, has exhibited extreme xenophobic tendencies and nearly caused an international incident at the Vietnamese border a few years back.  Suspicion of the Vietnamese is an audacious play to drum up nationalism and votes amongst a certain segment of the Khmer electorate.

Southeast Asia, having been more or less unaffected by the global recession of 2008, appears to be booming. Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City look like Western metropolises. Singapore enjoys the third highest per capita income in the world. Indonesia is a member of the G-20 and has a GDP of over $1 trillion.

And while these countries have their share of poverty as well, the contrast is much more evident in Cambodia, a nation of tuk tuk drivers and motodups, of corner street coffee sellers and cell phone sim cards.

But it is also a country of incredible beauty and cultural history whose people have endured a past as dark and tragic as anywhere in the world. It’s a country which deserves much more from its political leaders. But it is certainly not the place of foreign writers and pundits to push for such progress, either.  That transition must come internally if it’s to come at all.

Photo: AFP





Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.

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