Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opinion: Cambodia's New Political Face


Signs of Change

As Cambodians go about their usual business, it is hard to ignore what is happening around them.

Everywhere within eyesight are political advertisements signaling the approaching general elections, to be held on July 28.

With such omnipresent advertising campaigns by all political parties, logic would define that political discussion would filter into the daily discourse. But Cambodia's political scene has not been built on such solid foundations.

That is because the result of the elections has already been decided, something uttered with disdain by a minority of Khmers who are willing to reluctantly discuss the topic at all. Although it can't be proven, even if there were bookmakers in Cambodia, nobody would take bets on the outcome of the polls. It seems almost unnerving to voice such thoughts as they echo the ambiguous undertones that reverberate through society. A remnant of the Khmer Rouge era perhaps, the belief that manipulation, espionage and repercussions appear to still have a part to play in daily governance.

The nexus between law and order and politics is no better portrayed than by the police stations openly adorned by the ruling Cambodian People's Party flags and banners, suggesting that fair democracy arrived and left with the UNTAC elections in 1993 and hasn't been seen since. That only creates a sense of pity for the opposition's political campaign. The opposition parades, which are strange to say the least, seem to be a mock rehearsal in which they play their role in the perception that the outcome is in doubt. In essence they are only helping paint the picture that Cambodia is experiencing an open and fair democratic process.

Perhaps the strongest stance the opposition parties could take to their cries of corruption of the reigning government would be to save their parade petrol and take down their advertising boards in unison to silently protest the sham, Cambodia would have no choice but to be labeled a democratic autocracy, a strategy that might be successful in awakening the outside world to Cambodia's political circus. The illusion of choice is a key factor that is stopping Cambodia being portrayed to the wider world as a despotic regime.

Such an idea would be easier to cast if it wasn't for the emergence of Sam Rainsy's National Rescue party which has offered a glimmer of hope on the horizon for Cambodian politics.

The Rescue Party seems to have mustered youthful vibrant support, with a following that is rooted in a new emerging breed of Cambodians who understand what is available to them and understand that change is needed for the economic security and progression of their nation. There is a feeling that the Rescue Party has offered an alternative worth investing in. They have rejuvenated the democratic choice on offer.

Barring some unimaginable turn of events, the Rescue Party will not win the upcoming elections. Hun Sen will not relinquish the iron throne quite so easily. But what we are seeing is the creation of a scene, one that will cause a headache for Hun Sen in his attempt to stay on his throne until the age of 90, as he has famously sid he would.

Cambodia is begging to move into a new era on its path of recovery from genocide. The last two years have proven this through the emergence of icons willing to stand up for what is fair and what is right. Mam Sonando, Tep Vanny, Chut Wuthy and Chea Vichea are well known names to those interested in Cambodia's emergence but these iconic figures, who have been willing to stand up for their beliefs, are not yet heroes among the vast majority of the Khmer population.

They remain unbeknown to most. They represent freedom of speech, land rights, workers' rights and environmental rights respectively, the pillars of contention in Cambodia. They are areas of politics where the public's wishes are not supported by the government in favor of economic prosperity to the elite few. They are pioneers, bearing a resemblance to the icons of the civil rights movement in America.

Although they are the only people to have walked down the road so far, they have paved the road for others to follow. There will be others. The government treated these pioneers as outlaws. They have either been imprisoned or killed. As others follow in their footsteps the CPP will need to discover a new tactic to deal with the people who stand for fairness in Cambodian society. It is never a good idea to fill up prisons with people who have made a stand for what they believe in.

Hun Sen has ever so kindly allowed Sam Rainsy to return for the upcoming elections. In retrospect this is nothing more than a shrewd move by a man who is assured of the election results. It would not be surprising if Sam Rainsy were made to disappear from Cambodia again, once the elections have been completed. It would not be in the prime minister's best interests to have him hanging around for the next five years, five years which potentially could shape Cambodia's next hundred years.

No one is quite sure how this dinosaur will die out and what will follow after. But the emergence of the Cambodian National Rescue Party and the pioneering protesters means there may not be a need for a meteorite to extinguish the giant lizards after all. Asia Sentinel by Thomas McLean

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