I am about to embark upon a topic that I hereby provide of disclaimer of my great ignorance and lack of knowledge. I have been in Cambodia just over two weeks and have been gathering small snipets of insights and opinions into the grand works of the political machine that leads this small but complex country. Please do not consider this a source of credible information by any means and do share any expert knowledge on the topic below in the reply box.
Major excitement is building up to the elections in Cambodia next month. At least within the expat community, it has been a topic of choice in most of the engaged conversations that I’ve had up to now. There doesn’t seem to be any debate on who is going to win the election, and that status quo will certainly be maintained. But by how much the ruling party will win is providing the excitement factor to political pundits of every colour in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. The King is the official head of state but the Prime Minister runs the show. As the King needs to provide royal assent to passed bills, his symbolic roll looks impressive but in fact he doesn’t even get to have a veto to block what he is essentially required to pass. However, the King has traditionally held an enormous amount of influential power with his people as a revered moral authority and figure across the country. The late King Norodom Sihanouk who passed last October was greatly mourned by Cambodians and led way for his son, King Norodom Sihamoni to take on this role some years before his death.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is the country’s true political leader in every way. Leading the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), he controls every aspect of Cambodian law, governance, and political spectrum. The CPP is quite interesting. A legacy of past Marxist ideology, it is now bills itself as under reformist socialism. It took power of the government after a controversial election in 1998 following a coup one year earlier. Politics and bureaucracy mesh interchangeably here. If you’re Cambodian and want to be an important person in the government, the NGO scene, or even the private sector, you inevitably need to be a member or associated with the CPP. Hun Sen is accredited for leading some ground-breaking reforms here in relation to economic growth and development. Some feel he has positively changed the country’s path. Others think he hasn’t done enough. In any case, he’s going to be the Prime Minister after the next election, but his popularity will be tested.
There are four other significant parties in the political spectrum that have ranging numbers of seats. The main opposition party now at a distant second is the Cambodia National Rescue Party after the merger of the liberal Sam Rainsy Party, named after the exiled leader, and the Human Rights Party now headed by Kem Sokha. A lot of media attention has focused on alleged scandalous remarks coming from Kem denying the genocide during the Khmer Rouge. An audiotape was released with Kem saying that Vietnamese soldiers imagined what they saw when they reported atrocities at the infamous Toul Sleng prison where many Cambodians were brutally murdered. Kem argues the recording has been taken out of context. However, a new law has been quickly passed to make such remarks illegal right before the election. Media campaigns aiming to destroy the reputations of opposing political forces happen at every level and can often signify more fear and insecurity than public information intentions. Politics in Cambodia don’t seem too unfamiliar to this Canadian expat who left his homeland at the onset of a publicity campaign set to destroy the new Liberal leader’s recent climb to power.
I’ve heard Cambodians are generally apathetic towards politics. It’s pretty hard to discuss civic engagement without remembering the extremities of Cambodian history, obviously focusing on the Khmer Rouge regime. A time when speaking out on anything could easily get you killed, it’s no wonder politics are often kept to oneself. However, I’ve seen numerous protests across Phnom Penh since I arrived. The organisation of the movements have surprised me. I’ve also seen women’s organisations in the markets, NGO offices all around the city, and disability issues manifested everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I think exclusion is going to be a huge issue I personally grapple with here once I enter deeper work in civil society engagement. But I can begin to hear some voices coming from the more vulnerable in some way. I am very much interested in observing how people here respond to the upcoming election.
I’ve heard a bit of subtle critical commentary from some educated Cambodians regarding the government. However, It seems that foreigners are far more likely to publicly criticise the political make-up of Cambodia to any significant degree. Last week the Economist published an article titled Cambodia election: Liars and deniers – if that can give you any sense of how the international community is watching the politics taking place here.
In any case whichever political stripe you’re wearing, It’s a very exciting time to be working on governance and civil society issues in Cambodia!