All too often the coming Cambodian elections are portrayed as a simple contest between good and evil, between brutal leaders such as strongman Hun Sen, who masterminded the coup that ousted his former co-premier Prince Norodom Ranarridh and is suspected of complicity in the killing of numerous political opponents, and brave opposition figures such as Sam Rainsy, whose supporters have been subjected to violent intimidation, including a grenade attack that killed 16 supporters during a peaceful protest last year.
But it is always wrong to view such situations in black-and-white terms. While there is no disputing the brutality of Hun Sen's actions, that is no excuse for viewing Mr Rainsy through unnecessarily rose-tinted spectacles. As we report today, his liberal image in the west is at odds with his behaviour on the campaign trail, where he has been banging the racist drum even harder than his political opponents, in attacking Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese community. Such Vietnam-bashing is a tried-and-tested way of courting cheap popularity in a country where popular hostility towards their powerful eastern neighbour remains strong. Nor is Mr Rainsy the only Cambodian politician to engage in such tactics. But his attacks seem to have been the most vicious, with the opposition leader using a derogatory Khmer term for the Vietnamese community more than 170 times during one recent speech.
The price of such behaviour can be measured in bloodshed. Ethnic Vietnamese have been the target of repeated attacks, including two massacres by the Khmer Rouge in recent months. Many have now begun sending their children out of the country, fearful that such inflammatory election rhetoric will lead to further casualties. Mr Rainsy has done many good things in fighting for democracy in Cambodia. But by engaging in such racist behaviour he is reducing himself to the same level as his less creditable opponents.