PHNOM PENH – Sam was born in 1963. He was only 12 on April 17, 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge invaded and evacuated Phnom Penh at the start of the infamous “Year Zero” – a demented mix of Stalinism, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural

 Revolution all rolled into a unique, grotesque rural utopia. Had the Khmer Rouge remained in power, Cambodia would now be in its Year 28.

In this virtual Year 28, Cambodia is still fighting to recover from utter devastation. Unlike Sam, more than half of the population of 12 million is less than 18 years old. But this does not mean the period from 1975 to 1978 has been erased from the collective memory – when up to 2 million Cambodians were murdered or died of hunger, medical negligence or forced labor in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, in the largest “autogenocide” of modern history. Just like Sam, every Cambodian over 30 carries the trauma of losing all or part of his or her family to the Khmer Rouge. The contrast with the achievements of the sophisticated Khmer civilization couldn’t be more graphic.

Sam has his own particular Khmer Rouge-related horror story to tell, but all his attention is now focused on the Cambodian national elections this coming Sunday. In a very polite, self-effacing, circuitous Khmer way, Sam admits he will vote for the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), but he wonders about its real chances of winning the polls. Sam has a university degree in engineering but he has to complement his income by driving a taxi. As a Cambodian urban professional, he is worried about jobs, deforestation and corruption – three of the crucial themes in the SRP’s platform, along with alleged Vietnamese border incursions.

Sam is an acerbic critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). He says Hun Sen behaves as if “he owns the country.” Sam criticizes the party’s myriad corruption schemes. He believes the CPP is selling the country to the Vietnamese – although CPP ministers swear their government never offered land to another country. As he drives around the few recently repaved Phnom Penh boulevards where US$45,000 sport-utility vehicles mingle with the army of motorbikes, and one inevitable concrete shopping mall – billed as Cambodia’s epitome of modernity – contrasts with the art-deco derelict beauty of the Central Market, Sam turns increasingly pessimistic: “Look at this people. Their lives are not better than 20 years ago.”

Sam’s indictment of the CPP certainly rings a bell around Phnom Penh, where a beaming Sam Rainsy, an urbane lawyer educated in France, could be seen this week leading a rally along Sisovath Quay, the boulevard facing the Tonle Sap River ringed with tourist-oriented riverside cafes. But just behind the romantic-tinted Foreign Correspondents Club – whose pristine French colonial mansion houses one of the coolest bars in the world – there’s a derelict French colonial yellow house miraculously still not touched by urban speculation, where 12 policemen live crammed with their families in appalling conditions. Their salary is not more than $30 a month, and it has not been paid on time. But they will all vote CPP.

Sam Rainsy has been warning for days that the CPP is planning a massive bribing operation, targeting party agents and election monitors, although the Interior Ministry has officially forbidden village chiefs from working as party agents. It’s no secret that the absolute majority are CPP. According to Rainsy, “either they accept the money and they continue to live … or they can face many things, including death.” Rainsy accuses the CPP of planning to submit fake ballots and creating “ghost votes.” In the previous electoral campaign of 1998, Rainsy famously said that “we are not a corrupt nation because we are poor. We are a poor nation because we are corrupt.” Today, the message remains substantially the same: “This country is dying slowly because we have given in to intimidation and blackmail too long.”

Even though the SRP is a mortal enemy of the CPP, officials from the former have been forced to deny almost on a daily basis that there could be talks between the two parties to form a government coalition. In the lovely words of a SRP member of parliament, “The CPP is wooing us because they see the Sam Rainsy Party is a pure, beautiful girl.”

The blame game among the main parties – the CPP, the SRP and the royalist Funcinpec, led by prince Ranariddh – is pure thunder and lightning. Funcinpec is accusing CPP of smearing the party leader’s wife, Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh. Princess Marie was the president of the Cambodian Red Cross for more than three years before the title was passed in 1998 to Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany. During Princess Marie’s presidency, $300,000 simply vanished, and the money has never been found. According to an adviser to Prince Ranariddh, it was in fact during Bun Rany’s presidency that the Cambodian Red Cross was making donations to villagers on behalf of the CPP.

In the countryside, the SRP blames the CPP for the distribution of raincoats with the CPP logo. According to a SRP candidate, “people are told that unless they vote CPP, the police cannot guarantee their safety.” The SRP has to fight the fact that in a country 80 percent rural, conventional wisdom holds that only if you vote CPP do you get some measure of development.

Funcinpec for its part wants to spend $200,000 organizing a national lottery – with prizes ranging from cars and motorbikes to T-shirts. As far as the party is concerned, this is a sound way of evaluating how many members it has. But the party’s co-secretary general, Bun Chhay, was forced to make it clear that the lottery is not a dodgy scheme to buy votes.

The favorite blame-game territory is the economy, which is in very bad shape. According to Funcinpec candidate Kong Vibol, “More people are jobless now than when Prince Ranariddh was co-prime minister. No investors from Japan or the US are here since 1997.” Under the CPP, Cambodia has not been able to provide at least 200,000 jobs a year needed by both its university graduates and its unskilled workers. Funcinpec also accuses CPP of losing $200 million a year in tax revenues because of corruption. CPP counterattacks by stressing how the Hun Sen government has invested millions of dollars in basic infrastructure – roads, bridges, water canals, schools. As for the SRP, it stresses the selection of the best 200 Cambodian economists to work with the party in case the elections are won. In words that probably would make no sense to taxi-driving urban professional Sam, an SRP parliamentarian said, “Our team is not taxi drivers like members of Funcinpec.”

The SRP may be confident to carry the working-class vote concentrated in Phnom Penh. Leaders of the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia have visited 180 factories in and around the capital, urging voters to stay (and not go back to vote in the countryside) and support the SRP. More than 200,000 workers run the Cambodian garment industry: they could carry a crucial swing vote on Sunday. According to Cambodian Labor Organization lawyer An Nan, Sam Rainsy himself carries tremendous weight because he has been personally involved in workers’ strikes demanding better wages and better working conditions. Both the SRP and Funcinpec have promised to raise wages to about $70 a month. But according to CPP Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, “this is a cheating promise in order to gain votes for the election.”

Life expectancy in Cambodia is still similar to what it was in the 1960s. One in five children does not reach the age of 12. Half suffer from malnutrition to a degree that impairs their full physical and mental development. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), fewer than 7 percent finish primary school. Fewer than 2 percent finish secondary school. Dr Beat Richner, head of the three Kantha Bopha children’s hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, says that every day they have to hospitalize “90 up to 100 cases of hemorrhagic dengue fever.” Richner stresses: “The epidemia is increasing, and it is worse than in 1998. The Ministry of Health was warned in December 2002 about the upcoming epidemia. Nothing was done, neither measures of prevention nor installations of additional correct facilities for correct curative treatment. So we ask for the money to be spent for the dengue epidemia. We are running out of money soon.”

Phnom Penh is filled with small orphanages housing up to 60 people each: professors (monthly salary $30), hotel or non-governmental organization (NGO) staff, policemen. Some of the orphanages house more than 500 children. These extended families are under constant threat of urban speculation. Still spared the usual proliferation of McDonald’s, Nike stores and 7-Elevens, Phnom Penh on the other hand offers unrivaled thrills to backpackers on the Great Indochina trail: playing mujahideen in the Pkor Lan shooting club means getting their kicks with an AK-47 or a M-16, not to mention Russian and Indonesian grenades put in baskets like Easter eggs, or the chance to launch a Chinese B-40 rocket – the same one the Khmer Rouge used to smash planes landing at the now-computerized Pochentong airport.

Cambodia remains a fragmented jigsaw puzzle in 3D – involving politics, morality and geography. Many pieces are missing: some are distorted and simply don’t fit; some are torn beyond recognition. The projection of this jigsaw puzzle since the 1960s reveals a noble and refined people persecuted by a non-stop avalanche of disasters: a military coup, a brutal civil war, “strategic” bombing, a bloody Marxist revolution, liberation and occupation by a hated neighbor (Vietnam), mass hunger, decadence, more civil war. Cambodia is a victim of geography and political naivete, a small nation under the shadow of two giant neighbors: 60 million Thais to the west and 80 million Vietnamese to the east. So what about the great leader Hun Sen? For urban professionals like Sam, he is nothing but a gangster. Former Khmer Rouge, former Vietnam strongman in the 1980s – when he led a dogmatic and corrupt government, cruel against its enemies and many Cambodians – Hun Sen poses today as a “democrat.” After dictatorships and horrendous communist regimes, he may boast about the success of an elected government under which Cambodia got its UN chair back, its admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which led to more Southeast Asian investment – and its probable admission to the World Trade Organization in September. Cambodia first applied to the WTO in 1994.

Hun Sen and the CPP constantly take pains to stress their legacy as the “heroes [who] drove away the Khmer Rouge and brought peace to the country,” according to the Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development: “They can claim that. But it’s not a convincing point for voters to change their minds.” Critics of the government prefer to stress the corruption and the absence of any effort to prevent or even contain illegal deforestation.

Relations with China couldn’t be cozier. Hun Sen hails China as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend” – although China supported the Khmer Rouge in the past. China for its part has pledged to forgive all of Cambodia’s debts. In the past five years Hun Sen has made a series of deals with the three leading Khmer Rouge survivors: Khieu Sampan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary (a former Pol Pot second-in-command turned Hun Sen’s political ally). As he cozies up to China, he keeps suggesting that Cambodians must “bury the past.” Human-rights NGOs have a case when they vehemently criticize the European Union, which made so much noise trying to convict former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: nobody is forcefully demanding that Cambodia put its criminals in jail. Methods of pressure wouldn’t be lacking: more than 50 percent of Cambodia’s budget comes from international aid. There are widespread fears that when Cambodia and the UN decide who must go to trial, Hun Sen in the end may be the de facto prosecution, judge and jury all rolled into one.

Hun Sen is not talking, before or after the elections. In the beginning of July he said he would not answer journalists’ questions for one month. He wants to remain above it all. And the CPP as a whole is also not interested in discussing anything. Four months ago the Phnom Penh Post requested an interview with the CPP chairman and president of the Senate, Chea Sim. There was no reply. Mark Malloch Brown, the respected administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has said that Cambodia’s development should be at the heart of the election debate. Malloch Brown advised Sam Rainsy to “cross-examine the government on how it’s doing on poverty reduction, jobs, education and health care.” But thanks to CPP isolationism, there has been no debate at all.

King Sihanouk is back in town for the elections, after another four-month cancer-treating stretch in Beijing. At 80, Sihanouk is one of the last surviving larger-than-life characters of the Cold War. Many Cambodians like Sam worry about a future without the King, who for better or for worse has been venerated for half a century as the god who has preserved Cambodia from total, irretrievable destruction. There have been suggestions that Sihanouk might privilege the Funcinpec party, led by one of his sons. But Prince Sirivudh, Sihanouk’s half-brother, has put all speculation to rest: “The King is neutral.”

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