Elections in Kampuchea

Mick and I have been fortunate enough to live through an election period in Cambodia. It was noisy, it was loud, it was exciting. I love election periods back home (usually) so seeing how the system worked here was very interesting. The election was held on July 28 and the month-long campaigning period leading up to it was filled with campaign parades, concerts, many many newspaper articles and rumours and gossip about each and every candidate. In that respect, it is no different to the politicking back in Australia, but the difference here is that the opposition here faces a very strong (near impossible) uphill battle to take over leadership.

To understand this battle, I need to outline some context about the Kingdom of Cambodia. Its confusing, complicated and quite sensitive. To understand the issues of today, you must have some knowledge of the past…Firstly, everyone is aware of the horrific history that Cambodia has overcome in modern history but there are some aspects that may not be as well known, such as the involvement of Hun Sen with the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was a guerrilla communist group established in the north eastern jungles of Cambodia. Officially, the party formed in 1968 as the “Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea”. The Khmer Rouge gained significant power after the military coup that deposed of the ruling Prince Norodom Sihanouk who sought support from the Khmer Rouge. This would prove disastrous as Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge lead a country wide insurgency from 1975 which is considered one of the most violent regimes of the 20th century. Estimates suggest that more than than 1.7 million people died through systematic executions, mass starvation and forced labor but this number is considered an estimate only.

A Cambodian soldier holds a .45 to the head of a Khmer Rouge suspect in 1973.

A Cambodian soldier holds a .45 to the head of a Khmer Rouge suspect in 1973. (Copyright Time Magazine)

Pol Pot lead a horrifying and terrifying campaign in Cambodia. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea and wanted to turn the country back to Year Zero. Year Zero is the concept that all modern culture and traditions, including technology, agriculture practices, health care and education, must be destroyed and a new revolutionary culture must replace it. The world, essentially, doesn’t exist before Year Zero.  As the Khmer Rouge put it – “what is rotten, must be removed”.

The Khmer Rouge lead an evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities to the countryside from 1975 and forced the people into massive labour camps to work at the beginning of Year Zero (April 17, 1975). The country was purified through the abolishment of currency, expelling of foreigners, killing of police, military, public servants, medical workers and teachers. Pol Pot wanted to create a totally isolated and self-sufficient state. The labour camps were forced to work under extreme conditions of starvation, drought, primative living conditions and sickness. Families were separated and executed.  Individuals or whole families starved to death or killed for not working hard enough, collecting food for personal or family consumption or for even having sexual relations.

Forced laborers digging canals in Kampong Cham province.

Forced laborers digging canals in Kampong Cham province. (Copyright Time Magazine)

By 1979, the repeated and continued attempts by the Cambodians to invade parts of southern Vietnam were enough and the Vietnamese military invaded, toppling the ruling Khmer Rouge on 7 January 1979. Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997, when he was arrested and sentenced to house arrest by his own followers after killing one of his closest advisers. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges.

Hun Sen was part of the Khmer Rouge in the Eastern Region of Cambodia. He fled to Vietnam during purges in 1977 and was a leader in the rebel army that the Vietnamese government used when they invaded Cambodia. He was appointed Deputy Prime Minister & Foreign Minister in 1979 as part of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (Vietnamese Established). Hun Sen was was elected Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister in 1985 and  has been the Prime Minister since this time thanks to establishing a strong-hold in Cambodia through support of the Vietnamese, corruption and military rule.

Put your hands up for Hun Sen!

Put your hands up for Hun Sen!

In 1993 the first democratic elections were held, with significant financial support from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia – a massive controversy in itself. More than 90 percent of citizens took to the polls on this day, which was an indication of the importance of change and progress in this damaged country. The FUNCINPEC party won 45.5% of the votes, but thanks to some internal factions and coalition forming with the CPP. This relationship lead to Cambodia having two prime ministers because Hun Sen refused to stand down to Prince Ranariddh. By 1997 this partnership had gone to shit and civil war broke out both within the government and across Phnom Penh with nearly 60 people killed and hundreds injured in the clashes.

The modern history of Cambodia is evidence of the fear, violence and lacks direction that is prevalent in the government and society of Cambodia. People are want change, want things to be better but are afraid to stand up because of the consequences of opposing the governing sentiment. Previous change came in the form of the Vietnamese who “freed” the country from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and who are also accused of committing rape, torture murder and subsequent looting and land-grabbing after the 1979 invasion. Even now, the Vietnamese are forever thanked for their involvement but there is a mistrust of their presence in the country. And the relationship between  Hun Sen and the CPP with the Vietnamese government is questionable. Many rumours swirl around suggesting major corruption and fraud with concessions being granted for major land areas for development, mining concessions, and allowances for Vietnamese to live (and vote) in Cambodia. Some of these accusations may or may not be true and some of them are based on ancient history (i.e. that the Angkor Kingdom was the largest in South East Asia and used to “own” most of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos”).

Regardless of these accusations, Cambodia remains a one-party-state. The CPP run the joint and Hun Sen has been Prime Minister for 28 years with plans to remain leader until he is 90 years old. Despite all his misgivings, has seen this country through a hellish past and into a modern, developing country, a difficult task for any leader, corrupt or otherwise.  Through trickery, thuckery and behind-closed-door negotiating, the CPP has established itself as top dog through changes to the parliamentary system – in 2006, they amended the constitution to allow for a 50% plus one to form a government, instead of two-thirds majority. It also controls most media in the country, including all television channels.

Vote early & vote often!

Vote early & vote often!

So the elections that were held on 28 July are ones that are bound in controversy, fear, corruption and questions. The people voted and the votes are still not confirmed. The preliminary results have suggested it goes to the CPP by a small margin but there have been a lot of accusations of vote fixing, names being removed from lists and other corrupt fraudulent practices during the voting period. There have been demands for international observers to review the process and recount votes, for a committee of CNRP and CPP members to review what happened and political rally’s have been significant, especially for the most popular opposition party – the CNRP. People are taking to social media to vent their frustrations, share their experiences and demand transparency and change. But the question remains as to what the CPP and Hun Sen will do.

Watch this space…

(If you are interested, i recommend keeping an eye on the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily for updates on whats going on.)


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