SIEM REAP, Cambodia – After a peaceful Sunday electoral day, it is widely expected that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen will get the largest number of votes in the third democratic elections in Cambodia since 1993. The leaders of the royalist Funcinpec and the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SFR) may not be as confident as Hun Sen, who urged all political parties “to be brave and accept the decision and judgment of the Cambodian people.” Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s judgment on the fairness of the elections is at best “mixed” – but not as bad as he feared.
As some of the ballot boxes in the 12,826 polling stations have to be collected in extremely faraway places deep in the jungle, official results will only be announced on August 8. The first preliminary results were expected on Monday evening, and will be available at the website of the National Election Committee – www.necelect.org.kh. Apart from the three main parties, 19 smaller parties are contesting the 123 seats in the National Assembly. A total of 6.3 million Cambodians – roughly half of the population – were registered to vote. Voter turnout has been estimated around 80 percent – and included such infamous characters as Nuon Chea, 77, the Khmer Rouge’s No 2 under Pol Pot, who voted in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin and declared himself a supporter of democracy. If the announced United Nations-Cambodia joint tribunal really takes off, Nuon Chea will certainly be one of the high-ranking former Khmer Rouge officials tried for genocide.
At 9am on Sunday in the boom town of Siem Reap, close to the Angkor temples, 209 voters – mostly country folk and workers in the tourism industry – had already been to the ballot boxes “donated by the government of Japan.” They overwhelmingly voted CPP. The justification was roughly the same, as explained by Cheam, a soldier in the Cambodian Army: “Because when the Khmer Rouge was here, only Hun Sen fought them. [Funcinpec leader] Prince [Norodom] Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy were not even inside the country.”
Local monitors – not European or Japanese – maintained strict vigilance in Siem Reap as well as in Angkor villages such as Qvean – a 10-minute drive by motorbike from Angkor Wat. At least 30 percent of Cambodian voters are less than 25 years old. That’s the case of Nuch. She is 20, got married only four months ago and stopped school in seventh grade to sell cold drinks to tourists. Nuch hopefully wants to upgrade to a job in a hotel in Siem Reap. She says: “All my family voted CPP. I followed my family.” She believes that Hun Sen – who visited her village only a few days ago – “has been good for poor people.”
Intimidation during these 10 recent years of democratic Cambodia has changed from gangsterism to more subtle practices. According to Human Rights Watch, there was wide distribution of “gifts” in the Siem Reap area in the run-up to the elections, in exchange for public oaths in which villagers pledged allegiance to the CPP. Many were asked to thumbprint written documents – which they are unable to read – in front of CPP officials, who threaten to repossess the “gifts” or deny any future assistance in case the CPP is not elected. Village chiefs all over rural Cambodia are basically loyal to the CPP. Only in the countryside is it starkly visible how the majority of Cambodians still fear criticizing the government in public.
According to UN figures, 36 percent of the 12 million Cambodians live on less than 50 US cents a day – the price of a cold drink sold by kids in front of Angkor Wat. What does rural Cambodia want? It’s very simple. Urban Cambodians want jobs and education. Rural Cambodians need education most of all.
Cheu lives in a shack with his family of eight in the middle of a dazzling rice paddy, with no electricity and of course no satellite TV – only half an hour by motorbike from the Angkor temples. His ancestors may have been laborers for the court of the 12th-century “Devaraja” (God King) Jayavarman VII, who introduced Mahayana Buddhism as the official, state-sponsored religion and put the finishing touches on the fabulous walled city of Angkor Thom. Like most of his neighbors, Cheu is illiterate and cannot tell the difference between the logos of the parties contesting the election. He wants at least a school in his area. He says the parties have made many promises, but until now he has not seen anything.
Last Friday – the last day of campaigning – it was pure madness in Phnom Penh, with huge rallies around town by the three main parties mixing with a non-stop exodus in cars, buses and motorbikes of people going back to vote in their home villages. There were stunts aplenty. Prince Ranariddh landed in a cow pasture in the countryside with his helicopter loaded with 10,000 flag-waving Funcinpec supporters, and urged them to apply “people power,” Philippine- and Indonesian-style, to send the CPP government away. CPP supporters endlessly sang a Khmer song that could be roughly translated as “wear the shirt, don’t take it off” – the CPP way of saying you should stick with people you know. It was a free-for-all in the booming smuggling routes between Thailand and Cambodia: all customs checkpoints were closed up to election day – another strategy to induce people to vote CPP.
The garment industry is the main pillar of Cambodia’s economy. There were only a handful of factories in 1993, during the first democratic elections supervised by the UN. Now there are more than 200, managed by bosses from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and South Korea, and employing more than 210,000 people. Eighty percent of the garments are exported to the United States. These exports earn Cambodia about US$430 million a year.
The garment-industry boom led to the appearance of a new social group in Cambodia: sons and daughters of peasants who become part of an urban proletariat. The Xinglong factory north of Phnom Penh is one of those places – rows and rows of sewing machines under big metal fans, where nobody wears protection masks and there are plenty of cases of people fainting because they did not get enough to eat.
Cambodian labor laws are not medieval anymore. The laws applied to the garment industry could even be compared to Thailand’s and Malaysia’s: minimum wage of $45 a month, better pay for extra hours, union rights and right to strike. But according to Cheam, a worker at the Xinglong factory, the fact is almost 80 percent of businesses don’t pay the minimum legal wage, and there’s not much the Ministry of Labor can do about it. Stories abound of smaller factories controlled by Chinese bosses who don’t pay the legal salary and force people to work extra hours.
This is one of the key constituencies that voted Sam Rainsy on Sunday. The opposition leader is sure to get their vote because since the early 1990s he has helped to put in place the first independent unions, who in turn supported him in his political battle against Hun Sen’s CPP. For the CPP – originally a communist party – the unions are a political threat. No wonder they have been under attacks by the so-called Pagoda Boys, a bandit militia linked to the CPP. Apart from the political parties themselves, the independent unions are the only social movement that has sprung up from Cambodian civil society. But it remains to be seen whether these new Cambodians spinning the wheel of globalization turn out to be the swing vote capable of eroding the subtle intimidation tactics of the ruling CPP.