Cambodians speak up for change in political stronghold

monkvotesAcross a small country in the heart of Southeast Asia, major political waves have come in like a storm before the typhoon. Though change hasn’t gushed in to the extent of a political overthrow, Cambodians across the nation voted towards something different and considerably radical in a place where memories of massive repression and horrific genocide linger on.

On Sunday, amidst some confrontation and spotted violence, vote tallying by the official TV network went through a slow and tedious process of counting commune by commune. Rumours spread like wildfire through texting and Twitter. Some saying the Prime Minister had fled, others proclaiming that a military coup was about to lock down the city as visible military convoys arrived across Phnom Penh in droves.

By about 8:30 in the evening, it became clear that the ruling party had survived. But with a massive reduction of seats, the majority looks far different at 68 seats against 55 seats.

The election has been exciting to say the least. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has essentially held onto power since 1985 through intimidation and a 1997 coup ridding himself of his rivals, will continue on at least another half decade. But it wasn’t a race without glitches or fanfare. Opposition party leaders found themselves amidst scandals that quickly turned them into national criminals.

The triumphant return of opposition icon Sam Rainsy, after four years of exile, seemed to hit Phnom Penh like a melodrama. Rainsy, working from outside Cambodia, merged his party with the other leading opposition party under a dramatic name that could only garner attention – the Cambodian National Rescue Party. It appears Cambodia will not be nationally rescued at this time, but there just might be inkling for a national help out at the very least.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) votes. In Cambodia, voters’ fingers are rolled in ink to prevent double voting though many allegations are emerging of ink that was easily washed off. Opposition icon Sam Rainsy (right) was not able to vote or officially lead his party due to late registration since he recently returned after four years of exile.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been criticized for years by the international community around elections. Last year during his visit, Obama scolded the Prime Minister on human rights and on the need for free and fair elections. The European Union caused a diplomatic scuffle last month when it reminded Cambodia’s National Election Committee of the opportunity it had to consolidate democracy and implement recommendations from the EU Election Observation Mission carried out in the last election in 2008. Disappearing names from voting lists, blocked media access, and State resources channeled into the campaign are a few of the issues that Cambodian democracy has been grappling with. The word on the street is that this election is far from over. The opposition has refused to accept the results and the people may be gearing up for some show of resistance. It could get messy.

Cambodians learned over time that being quiet was often the key to survival. From 1975-1979, Cambodians with education or with any reason to suspect they had an opinion were tortured and murdered in masses during the Khmer Rouge years. Simply revealing that you spoke French, the language of education, would be a near certain offense punishable by death.

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The energy between the two campaigns was noticeably different.

For a society often seen as apathetic to politics for these and other reasons, it would be a misconception to say that this election has been quiet affair. Street rallies were loud and visible over the pre-election campaign month. It was certainly notable that the CPP events were often slightly subdued but attended by wealthy SUV-owners in well tailored suits. Pictures of the three older leaders looking out without expression were posted on walls and poles across the country. Opposition rallies certainly made themselves heard in the streets, often powered by the energy of social media savvy youth on motorcycles, make-shift vehicles, and on foot with banners of the two opposition party leaders holding hands up high and looking directly at voters with the symbolic sun logo. The contrast between the two campaigns was stark.

The results of the election may indicate to outsiders that some sense of status quo has been sought by Cambodian voters. For those on the inside, the considerable shift of power is a strong message from civil society that the fear of repercussion through voicing opposition is starting to end. Powered with mobile phones and connected through Facebook, a new generation is beginning to bloom in Cambodia’s political life.

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