Although an uneasy calm has now descended upon the streets of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, since the national elections on the 28th July a high-stakes political drama has continued to intensify. After 10 days of claims and counter-claims, it feels no closer to a conclusion.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) declared himself Prime Minister on Monday, despite the incumbent Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), insisting on Friday that he will remain in the top spot for the next parliamentary term.
Provisional results indicate the CNRP has struck a sizeable blow to Hun Sen’s majority, seizing 47% of the popular vote. Official results, expected tomorrow at the earliest, are only likely to compound the deadlock: the validity of the outcome has been strongly contested by Rainsy who has called for a UN-backed committee to investigate allegations of widespread electoral fraud. Hun Sen, although claiming to “welcome” any investigation, has rejected the possibility of involving an international third party.
This is just the latest in an ongoing saga that began in earnest nine days before the election when Rainsy was welcomed back from a four-year exile by a jubilant 100,000-strong crowd. His return sent an already-spirited campaign, hopeful of overturning three decades of de facto autocratic rule, into hysteria.
In a country where corruption is rife, voter intimidation is commonplace and any discussion of voter preference is usually met with tight lips, the scale of public support, seen most vibrantly in last week’s motorcade campaigning, was unprecedented. Tuk tuks and motorcycles sped around the Cambodian capital shouting, “Do Mein Do?” (change or not change?) to which those lining the streets replied emphatically, “Do!”.
Among his supporters, Hun Sen represents stability. But for CNRP advocates, stability is no longer enough. They want progress and Rainsy’s CNRP has captured this moment—successfully galvanising an historic populist youth movement and engaging an emerging new political consciousness with the possibility of change.
Which makes the loss all the greater that Cambodia’s strongest opposition candidate since Hun Sen swept to power in a military coup 27 years ago, used his campaign to unleash a tide of xenophobia by stoking up fervent anti-Vietnamese nationalism.
Although the two nations have a historic rivalry, Rainsy’s fierce rhetoric, including flagrant use of the term “yuon” (Khmer for Vietnamese, but widely considered to have derogatory connotations), is fanning the flames of racial tension among the rank and file of his supporters.
On election day at the Stung Meanchey polling station on the western outskirts of Phnom Penh saw altogether more sombre scenes than the giddy optimism of the campaign trail two days previously. Some voters discovered their ballot had already been cast, or that they weren’t on the electoral list at all. The disgruntled voters articulated their frustration through xenophobic chants. Calls of “Get them out!” expressed the commonly held belief that ethnic-Vietnamese were being allowed to vote but that Khmers were being denied the same right.
Clashes with riot police broke out and two police pick-up trucks were upended and set ablaze. A man identified by the mob as Vietnamese was hospitalised after suffering from head injuries.
In the wake of the unrest, social media has been echoing this mood: prominent student leader and CNRP supporter (although not officially affiliated), Phe Sovarrinith, has posted warnings in Khmer for Vietnamese to “return to Vietnam quickly”. Everyday users of his page post comments with sinister incitements to racially-motivated violence.
Systemic corruption (one report priced votes in some provinces at US$2.50) means that for the time being dubious electoral practices are an unhappy fact of life in Cambodia. But this doesn’t make them any less a travesty.
That the CNRP, on the other hand, is irresponsibly squandering this burgeoning new socio-political capital by stirring up a xenophobic frenzy for short-sighted point-scoring is nothing short of tragic.
Despite forecasts of more trend-defying growth, a quarter of the Cambodian population live below the national poverty line and inequality is on the rise. The CNRP’s proposals of minimum labour rates, pension plans, subsidised commodities and free health care are aimed at easing the burden of poverty on those yet to feel the material benefits of Cambodia’s expanding economy.
With these progressive economic policies, a popular anti-corruption platform and a growing public appetite for change, it’s curious that Rainsy felt the need to recourse to such fanaticism.
Speaking to Al Jazeera after the election result was announced, Rainsy expressed gratitude to the Cambodian people who dared to vote and demand democratic change, arguing that: “any gain for the opposition is a gain for democracy.”
Whilst steps towards ending Hun Sen’s longstanding one-man show are laudable, to ensure the longevity of this momentary breaking dawn of freer political expression, it must not be commandeered by petty bigotry.
Sam Rainsy must take responsibility for inflaming this racial tension and should begin by sticking to his script of anti-corruption and greater economic equality. Cambodia deserves better than the choice between a bigot and a despot.