OPINION: Democracy Bites the Dust in Cambodia but Glimmers of Hope Remain

OPINION: Democracy Bites the Dust in Cambodia but Glimmers of Hope Remain
Photo Credit: AP / TPG
Why you need to know

Last weekend's ballot was an insult to Cambodians but claims of total victory leave the world in little doubt as to their course of action.

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As the red dust settles on Cambodia's soil following the hubbub of last weekend’s election, questions hang in the air over what just really happened.

The short answer is that Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia as the world’s longest serving prime minister since 1985, is basking in the prospect of another five years in power.

The official results suggest that the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all 125 seats in parliament, with 77.5 percent of the vote on the back of turnout of 80.5 percent.

This result, which had been on the cards since the forced dissolution and subsequent exile of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last November, represents nothing less than the death of the democracy in Cambodia.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG
Cambodian riot police officers stand in lines before being sent to polling stations for 'security' in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

It is the snuffing out of more than a quarter of a century of hope, and an insult to a people who have suffered enormous hardship. Their hopes and dreams for self-determination and change have been mercilessly crushed.

In 1991, as a 16-year-old, I wrote a newspaper article asking “Are We Ready for Democracy?” ahead of the first UN-endorsed elections my country held in 1993.

I didn’t think we were ready then, but as a 43-year-old, I feel that I and 16 million other Cambodians have had our rights stolen away.

Elections are the culmination of a democratic process. That process was disfigured beyond recognition with the detention of CNRP leader Kem Sokha in September – ostensibly for “treason” in colluding with the U.S to overthrow the government.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG
A supporter of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, wears party president Kem Sokha portrait poster reading 'Free' as she stands outside the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017.

The real reason, as later stated by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, was “politically motivated’ and part of “what appears to be an escalating trend in Cambodia of suppression of criticism of the government.”

The group called for his immediate release and that he be awarded compensation for his arbitrary detention.

Instead, the ballot did not include his party, which had won nearly half the votes in 2013 national elections and in 2017 commune elections [a commune is an administrative area in Cambodia], and which before the Supreme Court ordered it to dissolve had held 55 of the 123 seats that were available in the previous parliament.

The backlash that accompanied this ruthless suppression of political opposition triggered an intensified crackdown on media freedom.

Reporters Without Borders said in April upon the release of its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, in which Cambodia fell 10 places to rank 142nd out of 180 countries, that “[Hun Sen’s] suppression of independent voices, his increased dominance of the mass media and his meticulous control of social media are a disturbing echo of the methods used in China, which has invested millions of euros in Cambodia’s pro-government media.”

A sham election

The European Union, Japan and the U.S. subsequently declined to send election observers to Cambodia, and a host of international human rights groups denounced the election as a sham.

Will we ever know for sure what the real voting numbers are? Of course not. That’s the point of an election without independent monitors.

As CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy told The South China Morning Post from self-imposed exile in France, ““[The CPP] could do whatever they want, including ballot stuffing, at the polling stations without the presence of credible observers or CNRP agents.”

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG
In this photo taken Sunday, July 29, 2018 Cambodia's self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy poses during an interview with the Associated Press in Freteval, France.

But I received reports that Phnom Penh was awfully quiet on election day. Lots of clean, untouched fingers, in line with a social media campaign calling for those who opposed Hun Sen to make their feelings known by boycotting the election and abstaining from dipping their fingers in the ink that marks the polling process in much of Southeast Asia.

And yet, if the government’s numbers have any anchoring in reality, we are looking at 1.49 million people who chose not to vote. Now, there are always people who do not vote, but in this election not voting, especially in rural areas, would seem next to impossible or suicidal. Somehow 1.49 million people escaped the searing eyes of the CPP.

That’s remarkable, particularly when you consider that news of the CNRP-sponsored clean finger campaign was suppressed by the government’s online censors.

Despite all the threats hurled at them, such as withdrawing much-needed government services in the province of Mondulkiri if voters boycotted the poll, they still refused.

In terms of spoiled ballots, even though the National Election Commission (NEC) is not reporting the figure as far as I know, early calculations are that nearly 600,000 or about 8.6 percent of the total 6,850,612 votes cast were spoiled, according to Asia Times.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG
A polling station official shows an invalid ballot paper after voting at a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 29, 2018.

This too is remarkable. Imagine all these people marching into voting booths with metaphorical guns to their heads and still walking out with their conscience intact.

A friend who shall remain anonymous wrote to me: "Based on my observation yesterday at Koh Khel commune, the result of this election is much deeper than you and I imagine. Fear rules. People are afraid even to carry a conversation with me. They are physically, economically, emotionally and politically intimidated by the constant warnings and threats by Hun Sen.”

Backed by China

Of course, the Chinese Communist Party was all too happy to give the CPP its full backing.

Beijing’s support was most recently illustrated during the weeks in the run up to the election by a pledge to provide US$259 million in concessional loans to fund a ring road in Phnom Penh, the latest in an avalanche of aid and investment that is spearheaded by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

And China was also gracious enough to send its own election observers, who of course have been observing free democratic elections in the PRC since 1949.

Perhaps they provided technical assistance on how to “count” the votes, to use Stalin’s phrase. Or computer systems that can make the numbers workout in such a way as to be mathematically correct but completely detached from reality.

Indeed, California security-research firm FireEye revealed earlier this month that a bevy of Cambodia-based organizations, including the NEC and opposition leaders, had been the target of Chinese hackers.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A woman uses a Chinese national flag to protect herself from the sun as she listens to Prime Minister Hun Sen delivering his speech during an inauguration ceremony of a sky bridge funded by China for its official use in Phnom Penh. A California-based security-research firm said July 11 that it found evidence that an elite Chinese government-linked hacking team had penetrated computer systems belonging to Cambodia's election commission, opposition leaders and media in the months leading up to Cambodia's July 29 election.

Was it for this that Cambodians endured the deaths of millions under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s?

I am not suggesting that we are slipping back to those dark times, but there are worrying parallels, not least that the Khmer Rouge had the backing of communist China, and that Hun Sen himself is a former Khmer Rouge general.

Hope in darkness?

There is a glimmer of hope in the ashes of this democracy, not least in the fact that such an obvious electoral fix should leave little doubt in the minds of the international community as to exactly what has happened here.

At first the government indicated that non-CPP parties, of which there were 19 on the ballot, had won perhaps a total of 11 seats. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan initially said: “The CPP won 80 percent of all the votes and we estimate we will win not less than 100 seats.”

But maybe that was a trial to gauge people's reaction – or evidence they are just making it up as they go along. Now the ruling party claims all 125 seats for themselves, but even as I write there are whispers of negotiations between Hun Sen and other party leaders on how to cut the electoral cake coherently, so as to avoid accusations of complete fakery.

Because the greedier they are, the more outraged the international community will be, and the more illegitimate the election will appear. The transformation of Cambodia from a liberal pluralistic democracy (despite all its flaws) into a single-party mini-me of China is in any case complete.

And with this transformation and with 125 out of 125 seats claimed by the CPP – the very definition of a one-party state by the way – will come sanctions. They will range from targeted ones to possibly as far as the trade variety.

In that case, there will be a lot of suffering, but in the end, it’s like the good Samaritan’s dilemma: The authorities will always win if they just hold their people hostage. As Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and I would add women] to do nothing.”

The ball is thus in the court of the U.S. and EU, both of which have threatened Hun Sen with an end to tariff-free access to their markets – which between them absorb two-thirds of Cambodia's exports – and other sanctions if the CNRP was not re-instated and its leader, Kem Sokha, released from detention.

True to its word, the U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a bill which if approved in the Senate will impose a ban on Cambodians implicit in undermining the country’s democracy from entering the U.S., as well as freeze their American assets.

Trade tariffs will automatically result if the U.S. and EU bring an end to their tariff-free policies towards Cambodia, which were instated as reward for our transition to democracy in the first place.

A leaked memo from Cambodia’s commerce minister suggested that if the two trading giants go through with their threats, the country’s exporters would face US$676 million per year in de facto new tariffs.

Those charges will obliterate Cambodia’s textile industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and acts as a channel for Chinese materials to be exported to the West.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG
Garment workers sew clothes in a factory as they wait for a visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. The sector will be hit hard if Cambodia's trade partners take a tougher line.
An uncertain future

Is there nothing left to do but accept this fate?

The key to a solution lies in providing just enough hope so even from the ashes of the ruling party’s destruction of Cambodian democracy, a phoenix can still rise.

The seeds of Cambodia’s future democracy have been planted by today’s excesses. Let's not forget, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said.

Or another, admittedly distant, possibility is that having arranged for total victory, the prime minister and the CPP will feel secure enough to reform themselves – cut down on the endemic corruption that ranked Cambodia 161st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index, making us the worst performer in ASEAN.

Hun Sen may decide to call it quits as prime minister during the next five years and hand over power to one of his three sons, while remaining Minister Mentor (a la Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew) or perhaps State Counselor (a la Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi). This I give a higher likelihood than the above scenario.

Of course, we could also have more of the same: He continues in power, corruption grows unabated, and Cambodia goes from satellite of China to province of China. This is not mutually exclusive from the status-quo returning, because that's pretty much what's been happening anyway.

Finally, Hun Sen could become even more power hungry and impose yet harsher dictatorial measures, but that risks real popular backlash. And why for the love of God? His people have surely suffered enough already.


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Editor: David Green

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