Cambodian elections blood-free… so far

Hun Sen at the World Economic Forum on East Asia 2010.
Hun Sen at the World Economic Forum on East Asia 2010. Copyright World Economic Forum/Sikarin Thanachaiary.

Cambodia will go to the polls on Sunday after what looks like being the most peaceful and relatively straightforward election campaign the troubled Southeast Asian nation has ever seen. But by no means is this a sign the country’s “strongman” Prime Minister Hun Sen is relaxing his grip on power. Quite the opposite.

Ruthless and wily, Hun Sen is a classic – almost Bond-esque – villain. A former Khmer Rouge commander who lost his left eye to shrapnel during the battle for Phnom Penh in 1975, he defected to Vietnam two years later when it looked like he might become a victim of the genocidal regime’s murderous paranoia – then marched back in with the Vietnamese as they booted Pol Pot out of the capital in 1979. He was installed by the Vietnamese as prime minister in 1985 and has ruled the country with a lock-jaw grip on power ever since.

Now nearly 30 years later and Asia’s longest-surviving prime minister, Hun Sen remains happily ensconced in his multi-million-dollar mansion, complete with a helipad on the roof and located on the most prominent corner in Phnom Penh, and says he is determined to remain in situ for at least another decade or so. For the good of the country.

A nominal democracy, elections in Cambodia have historically been marred by waves of political intimidation and killings. Each time around, the bodies of candidates, activists, officials and journalists have been found in roadside ditches or shallow graves. In one particularly notorious case in 1998, an official from the royalist Funcipec opposition party – who had recently defected from the CPP – was found with his head and face bashed in, his eyes gouged out, an ear and fingers cut off and the skin and flesh flayed from his legs. The police ruled the death suicide. In 1997, unidentified men hurled grenades into a rally for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, killing 16 and wounding dozens more.

Having increased his majority in the country’s parliament each election since 1998, Hun Sen now seems to feel comfortable paying lip service to the democratic process. This month he even asked the head of state, King Norodom Sihamoni, to give Rainsy a royal pardon. The CNRP’s president had been in self-imposed exile for four years to avoid jail on trumped up charges, widely believed to be politically-motivated, and the pardon allowed Rainsy to return to the country just in time for the vote (unfortunately for Rainsy, the government’s National Election Committee still refused to allow him to run for office).

This time around there have been no deaths and only relatively minor – usually drunken – scuffles between supporters of the CPP and opposition parties. The Phnom Penh municipal council has been playing silly buggers and giving the ruling CPP favourable treatment, some campaign signage has been damaged and an opposition party official’s house was burned down. The most serious incident saw the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s headquarters shot at in the early hours of Saturday morning; a single bullet smashed a glass door and embedded itself in a chair inside, but no one was injured.

This is what passes for uneventful in Cambodia. These days – under the glare of international scrutiny – murdering political opponents is probably more hassle than it’s worth. The Cambodian government relies on foreign aid donations worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year which fund approximately half its budget – most of which seems to go on Lexus SUVs – and pay for most of Cambodia’s public services. Egregious human rights violations and political killings tend to put the donors offside.

The government doesn’t really need to kill its opponents anymore anyway. Even though Hun Sen and his extended network of family and cronies lead lives of spectacular and ostentatious privilege while most of the population live in rickety wooden stilt huts and subsist on rice, the CPP is actually pretty popular.

All Cambodia’s television stations and Khmer-language newspapers are either government-owned or affiliated and so the CPP receive wall-to-wall positive media coverage – especially on Bayon TV, managed by Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, Hun Mana – including hours devoted to telecasting CPP candidates’ speeches. The opposition parties don’t get a look in. Even a massive rally held to celebrate Rainsy’s return last Friday – which drew an estimated crowd of 100,000 people – didn’t rate a mention.

Many probably vote CPP because they believe it’s Hun Sen personally paying for their basic infrastructure and facilities and not the government. He routinely opens roads, schools and pagodas around the country claiming to have spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the projects. Where he may have acquired all this cash while claiming to receive only a meagre monthly salary is a moot point. If Hun Sen goes, he threatens and the people believe, the development will disappear with him.

A common refrain among provincial voters is: “Why should I vote for the opposition? What have they ever done for us?” The fact the opposition has never been in control of the government coffers doesn’t seem to come into their thinking.

There’s also a certain appeal to being on the winning team. Sure, Hun Sen may be, according to U.S. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, “a corrupt, vicious human being”. But if you’re in the tent you might get invited to the banquet or at least get some crumbs from the table. If you’re not in the tent, you get nothing.

But really, the main reason most support the CPP is they simply don’t want to rock the boat. The government might be robbing the populace blind through a pyramid system of institutionalised patronage where bribes are necessary for everything from getting a crime investigated, to getting emergency medical treatment to getting your children taught in primary school. But at least they aren’t actively slaughtering the populace.

Basically, after years of war and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, who exterminated and starved to death an estimated two million people, anything is better than another civil war. And everyone knows that’s what will happen if someone tries to take away the government’s Mekong-sized river of dirty cash. He’s told them repeatedly.

“For sure, [civil] war will erupt if they [the opposition party] win the election,” Hun Sen warned during a speech broadcast nationally on radio before the election period began.

“He [opposition leader Sam Rainsy] has not won power, yet he announced that the members of the ruling government will be brought to trial. Problems will happen like during Pol Pot’s regime,” he warned, adding that “nobody will be waiting to be arrested”.

Hovering ominously over the crowds at opposition leader Rainsy’s homecoming celebrations on Friday were two recently-acquired Chinese-built Harbin Z-9 attack helicopters. For anyone looking to the skies the message was clear.

If, as expected, the CPP is returned with a solid majority things will return to business as usual: the government pocketing huge sums of money from foreign donors and tycoons while the vast majority of the population continue to eek out an existence with perhaps marginal, almost incidental, improvements in their quality of life.

But if Hun Sen has miscalculated and given the CNRP a little too much freedom and they manage to win enough seats to start holding the CPP to account, then things will get very interesting indeed. As he has allegedly done in the past, Hun Sen will likely start buying or killing opposition lawmakers until he once again has a comfortable majority in the parliament.

In the unlikely event the opposition parties actually win government, no one doubts that it will no longer be the media that Hun Sen uses to retain power. It will be the police and the army. And then things will get bloody.

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