As voters trudge to Cambodia’s polling stations, with the threat of public services being withheld if they don’t tick the ruling party’s box, they’d be forgiven for thinking “what’s the point of all this?”
Prime Minister Hun Sen authorised up to 50,000 election observers, but there’s nothing to see other than a political farce. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been ruling with an iron fist for 33 years, ever since the embers of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime petered out.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nearly caused an upset in the 2013 election and has regularly called out Hun Sen and the corruption within government, with Hun Sen alone accused of embezzling over US$1.3 billion (HK$10 billion) from public coffers. According to Transparency International, a global anticorruption coalition, Cambodia is the most corrupt nation in Southeast Asia, and one of the worst 20 offenders globally.
So this time around, Hun Sen is taking no chances. Starting last year with the arrest and imprisonment of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, after his predecessor Sam Rainsy was forced into exile, the CPP went on to close down the liberal newspaper Cambodia Daily and muffled two independent radio stations before blunting the opposition for good by dissolving the CNRP last October and banning its 118 MPs from politics for five years, most of whom fled to Thailand for their own safety.
It’s like a World Cup with one team. The people are being forced to swallow the party line that they’ve never had it so good. It’s two key industries – tourism and textiles – are flourishing and GDP – US$22 billion in 2017 – is on the rise, yet most live below the poverty line.
Former CNRP MP Mounh Sarath, who has worked with rural grass roots NGOs for 35 years, says the CPP has been “peddling a myth” that life is better, when 71 per cent of the population still live on less than US$3 dollars a day, 90 per cent of them living in poor rural areas. “We’ve been so long in poverty; think of education, health care, these haven’t changed at all. With our natural resources, abilities, agriculture, there’s a lot of potential, enough to support the people, but it’s failing because of corruption,” he says.
His words are echoed by Cambodia’s most influential female MP, Mo Sochua, who’s now in forced exile due to the CNRP’s demise, but is globally recognised as a champion of women’s rights and is a good friend of Hillary Clinton.
Just the day after the CNRP was forcibly dissolved, Sochua was in Phnom Penh living under the threat of imprisonment, which had already happened to 15 of her CNRP colleagues. She said at the time that more than four million people – a quarter of the population – were living on a dollar a day, adding: “We’ve spent years suffering from genocide, and now we’re barely building a democracy. They don’t allow people to speak, you’re not allowed to express yourself, members of parliament are put in jail, all on the orders of one man. There’s poverty because of corruption and the control of power.”
Once an adviser to Angelina Jolie, Sarath now claims that the Hollywood star’s ties with the Cambodian government – Jolie has met Hun Sen several times – effectively endorses his autocratic regime to the outside world by not using her platform to denounce Hun Sen’s abuses.
Jolie recently directed the film First They Killed My Father, a biographical thriller based on the life of Loung Ung, who in 1975 was trained as a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime. Jolie was accused by Human Rights Watch of supporting the government by employing members of the Cambodian army to portray the Khmer Rouge.
She’s also been accused of buying land from former Khmer Rouge commander Ta Tith to extend her luxury compound in Samlaut, a rural town of Battambang province. “Cambodia is being trapped, we are the victims of this regime. But she decided to support the government,” he says. “Everything that the government is doing is not right. It’s not the people’s will, but she is telling the rest of the world that they are correct. Everyone knows this government is corrupt, she is trying to say that Cambodia isn’t the problem any more, it’s already been saved. But it’s not.”
All human rights organisations agree that a fair election result is impossible, leading some to yearn for an even more barbarous era. In the border town of Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, the people see the old regime through rose-tinted, not blood stained, memories.
Pol Pot hid out there until his death in 1998 and Ta Mok, his No 3 nicknamed “The Butcher” due to his thirst for ordering massacres, still ran the town even after the Khmer Rouge had fallen everywhere else, building hospitals, schools and other public services.
Ly Sok-Kheang, director of the Anlong Veng Peace Centre, has spent the last four years educating often conflicting generations on the country’s violent history and trying to reconcile it with a peaceful, integrated future. “The people, especially elderly, think back to that era, as they’re disappointed with the current political situation, and say it would be better to live in that age,” says Sok-Kheang.
“There was no corruption, no drugs, no robbery, everybody appreciated that people helped each other, everyone had no money. Now in the free economy, it’s hard to make a living, there’s competition, money is so important.
“The people think the Khmer Rouge has done some good. Anlong Veng itself, it’s the place where 80 per cent were Khmer Rouge members, and when The Butcher took control, he gave hospitals and schools. When they needed money, rice, sugar, The Butcher would sort it. People say he served the people and didn’t see the bad side of him.”
As voters reminisce and the opposition lies in exile, foreign media have derided the electoral process, with one headline stating this week that “Democracy has died.” Is there any hope for the future?
Despite a misplaced reverence for the past, and a complete distrust of those currently entrenched in power, Sok-Kheang believes change will happen, saying: “The attitudes of the young are completely different from their grandparents. It will take decades. We want them to learn about the Khmer Rouge, but not glorify them.”
Sochua agrees democracy will eventually win. “The people will support us. We’re not fearful. They don’t know how to control us. They don’t know how to make us give up the fight,” she says.
“The more that are put in jail, the stronger we become. If you put 200 in jail, another 200 will take their place.” ■