In the run-up to Cambodia’s national election on Sunday, a climate of fear has gripped many parts of the country, with widespread intimidation at all levels of society.
However, the fear and intimidation being inflicted on voters has nothing to do with deciding the winner of the July 29 poll. The victor was decided in November 2017 when the Supreme Court dissolved the country’s only serious political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is contesting a one-horse race against 19 also-ran parties, mostly unknown to voters and most only recently formed. Many of the small parties are thought to be funded by the CPP in a bid to give the election a veneer of legitimacy. Some may win a handful of seats but none will be able to mount any serious opposition when the CPP inevitably forms the next government.
Hun Sen’s biggest fear is not losing – he has stacked the odds so high in his and his CPP’s favor that he’s expected to win by a landslide. His biggest fear is a low voter turnout, which would leave many of the countries that have helped fund Cambodia since the 1990s questioning the credibility of the poll and legitimacy of the next “elected” government.
An extremely low voter turnout could spell disaster for Hun Sen and the ruling party and possibly lead to economic sanctions. Many former members of the disbanded opposition and their supporters have called on people to stay at home on voting day.
To counter calls for a voter boycott – known locally as the “clean finger” campaign, reference to the indelible ink dabbed on voter’s fingers after casting their ballots – the ruling party has resorted to what it does best: intimidation and threats.
The threats and intimidation have even reached beyond Cambodia’s borders. There are an estimated one million Cambodians working in Thailand and large numbers are expected to rush home this weekend to cast their ballots. Many do not support the ruling CPP, but are returning because of threats to their livelihoods.
“We have been told that if we don’t go home to vote, the government will take our land and homes,” a Cambodian from Banteay Meanchey province who works in a restaurant in Bangkok said.
“Officials from the CPP came to our village and told people that if all those working in Thailand did not return home to vote, the government would take their land. My family is terrified because me and my sister and brother work in Thailand and the money we make supports our family and helped buy them land to farm in Cambodia. We have to go back to vote,” he said.
The same story was repeated by a group of Cambodian construction workers at a Bangkok building site. They are angry not only at the threat of losing their land, but at having to spend their hard-earned money to return to Cambodia for only a few days.
“Most of us are going back to vote – we have to or our family land will be taken,” said a construction worker who requested to use only his first name, Sophea. “There have been threats on Facebook as well as CPP people going around my village, telling people they will not only lose their land, but will get no development like roads, electricity and water in the future if people do not all go to vote for the CPP.”
One of Sophea’s co-workers chimed in: “My village voted for the CNRP in the commune elections last year and the CPP guys came and told everyone they will be checking to see how many voted. This makes me mad because many in my village like me have had to leave our families to find work in Thailand on construction sites because we can’t find work in Cambodia…I will vote, but it won’t be for the CPP. They only care about getting rich and staying in power and they don’t care about our people.”
The threats play on the fears of the poor and vulnerable in Cambodia, where many recall the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and civil war in the early 1990s. Cambodia’s largely young population has heard the horror stories from their parents or grandparents and are afraid of a return to the chaos of old. And while it’s doubtful that those in power could and would seize voters’ lands in retaliation for boycotting the poll, few are brave enough to call their bluff.
Sources in Phnom Penh and nearby Kandal province where many garment factories are located said pressure is also being put on workers to vote. “Intimidation is widespread at the local level. Villagers who voted for the opposition have been cut off from services in the past. Employees in garment factories are getting three days off to return to their villages to vote. They have been told to return with ink on their index finger in order to get paid for the time off,” a union official said.
Hun Sen has unduly influenced previous elections, by staging coups, using violence, stacking the vote and in one case refusing to cede power after losing the vote. But this election is different.
Hun Sen’s CPP has recently passed a number of laws designed to give it absolute rule. Passing laws is easy when there’s no opposition to object and there are no debates on the merits or pitfalls of such legislation. Two examples are the so-called NGO Law, which laid out strict new rules for non-governmental organizations, and more crucially the law on political parties.
The NGO law not only helped silence independent bodies speaking out against human rights abuses, corruption and other issues, but forced many to close their doors and leave the country, robbing Cambodia of one of the few avenues for people to voice their complaints and seek help on a wide variety of issues.
The law on political parties should have been called the “Sam Rainsy law” after the former opposition leader, who now lives in exile in France. At the time it was passed, many said it was aimed specifically at him. But they were proved wrong – it was aimed not only Rainsy, but the entire CNRP. The law was designed specifically to cripple and eventually dissolve the main opposition party.
The laws have also turned Cambodia’s judiciary into an instrument of government. A good example of the courts’ lack of independence was played out on May 3 this year when Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun Chea, was arrested after firing a gun during a domestic dispute. Hun Chea had been an embarrassment to Hun Sen for some time because of his bad behavior and he was arrested, tried in court and sentenced to 18 months, all on the same day.
In a stark contrast to Hun Chea’s whirlwind trip through the justice system, former opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested on trumped up treason charges on September 4 last year and is still awaiting trial.
“Senior CPP figures shamelessly say they are following the rule of law when they crack down on individuals or entities. But these are the laws they passed with no debate and the laws are only designed to legitimize what they do,” said a diplomat who was previously based in the country. “Cambodia’s judiciary is a joke, even in Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” he added.
The real test for Hun Sen and his CPP will come after Sunday’s election. By any international standard, the contest will be neither free nor fair, as the party that almost half the country voted for in the last election no longer exists.
Indeed, there are rising rumors of major rifts within the ruling CPP, with some insiders saying Hun Sen is on thin ice as international pressure mounts on individual party members.
If there is to be change in Cambodia, it will most likely come from the ruling party’s younger generation, many of whom are fed up with the strong-arm tactics of the old hard-liners. Many of the CPP’s younger members realize that ordinary people are fed up with the endemic corruption, greed and the unabashed displays of ill-gotten wealth by their authoritarian leaders.
After more than three decades of Hun Sen’s rule, many Cambodians have had enough. But the country’s long-suffering people won’t have a chance to express that growing sentiment at this Sunday’s rigged and largely illegitimate poll.
Alan Parkhouse is the former editor-in-chief of both The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times.