Politics in Cambodia
I’ve been writing this blog post for almost two weeks. Why? I keep waiting for a conclusion to tie it all together, but there doesn’t seem to be one anytime soon. Then I realized, I’m not writing some best-seller…I’m filling you all in on my life over here. Having a small bag packed in case of emergency evacuation from Cambodia; receiving almost daily debriefings from my office of the current security issues; keeping my kitchen stocked with food and water in case of riots & loss of power; seeing tanks and military police around the city- this is my everyday life here for the past two weeks.
Two weeks ago Cambodia held its national election. The current Prime Minister has been in office for more than 27 years, making him one of the 10th longest-serving leaders in the world. He is the leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). There have been numerous human rights reports and studies about the methods this party uses and how it has retained power. Elections are held, but there is an “understanding” among the people that it’s a futile effort. This year there was a shift. This year the people of Cambodia rose up in a way they have not in many years, with hope in their eyes and power in their chants.
I arrived in Cambodia just as campaign season was starting. This means rallies every day, all over the country, with an obvious concentration here in the nation’s capital (Phnom Penh). For the past month going to work, running out for lunch, or heading home at night I never knew if I would get stuck in a rally or in rally traffic. These rallies seem to form like flash mobs, suddenly pouring down the street in a seemingly endless stream of the supporters of a particular party. These rallies are giant parades of supporters on motos holding flags, with some trucks, SUV’s, and even semi-truck with huge speakers strapped to them. The speakers blasted techno music while people with megaphones chanted and played pre-recorded political rhetoric. It’s been an interesting month of watching rallies, at times being stuck in the middle of rally parades, and having very interesting political conversations with locals. The rallies were an interesting visual into the heart of a people who are not big on outward expressions of emotion.
My organization is non-political and I was asked to not discuss politics with our national staff, or really anyone. I was also told that most Cambodians don’t like to speak politics due to fear of retaliation. I couldn’t seem to not have these conversations though. Cambodians loved sharing, especially to an American, that they are taking matters into their own hands and fighting for their own freedom and for democracy. The past 6 weeks I have had some fascinating conversations with Cambodians about their country. From co-workers, to tuk tuk drivers, to fellow restaurant patrons, they’ve all been quite open with sharing their views with me. I hear the same determination to break from status quo and take back their country and watch Cambodia rise up even more from the ashes of its recent history. Being an American the terms “hope and change” are something I hear a lot, but in the past few weeks I saw a nation of people (young & old) flooding the streets because of a deep rooted desire for change fueled by hope.
Election day came Sunday July 28th and as the day went on we started hearing reports of riots. We heard reports of people not being able to vote and we started hearing rumors of election fraud. 13% of voters went to vote only to find their names were removed from the voter list, someone else had used their name, or that their names were misspelled. Violence began to break out at some voting stations as people expressed their anger and frustrations. As the evening approached the city turned into a ghost town and rumors/paranoia sky rocketed. Major streets were closed off, a large area around the current Prime Minister’s house was blocked off and social media was off the charts.
Non official results were shared in the early evening. First the opposition party said they won, then came a report came out saying the reigning party won 68 seats and the opposition won 55, a significant decrease in majority for the reigning party who previously held 90 of the 123 seats. The military was mobilized and everyone was bracing for the worst. The opposition leader came forward and requested his followers to keep the peace and for no violence. For the most part his message was heard and things remained quiet. The next morning the opposition party formally rejected the early election results and requested an investigation into the election citing vast irregularities within the election. Since then there have been some uprisings, riots, and rallies throughout the country. Although 2 weeks have passed and it has been relatively quiet, we are still not out of the woods. Other countries such as the US and Australia have also requested the government provide an investigation into the election. China is supporting the reigning party and has given Cambodian police 1,000 handguns and 50,000 bullets which have been distributed to the police within Phnom Penh (these are officers who are normally not armed).
As I write this today, the results are still in the air. They are being recounted and each deadline that is set, becomes extended or a new agreement is made to “investigate” the allegations of fraud. Each day there is a new development and story in the paper, but no resolution. On the turn of a dime things can change, but in the meantime the country waits for the results. The people wait to see if their voices are heard. They wait with hope that a non-violent change can happen….and I prayerfully wait with them.