Behind Cambodia’s electoral silence

Behind Cambodia's electoral silence

Nearly all the parties standing in Cambodia’s general election are allied with the ruling party (CPP) complain activists. That is not the case for the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), led by Yang Saing Koma (in the picture). From its head office, next door to a modest family restaurant in the north of Phnom Penh, the agronomist and prime ministerial candidate prepares his campaign and turns a deaf ear to the CNRP’s request that he should not stand as a candidate in the elections.

(Marta Checa)

Everyone in Phnom Penh remembers the last general elections. The excitement, the mass rallies, the protests, the promises of change and the frenetic activity on social media, which gained unexpected, unprecedented momentum, as often happens in this part of the world. Perhaps that is why the silence now, in the run-up to 29 July elections, feels all the more acute.

Among the things not being talked about are the 25 political prisoners, the systematic corruption, the dismantling of the main opposition party and the massive buying up of businesses and land by citizens of the People’s Republic of China, which has never been closer to the government of the Prime Minister Hun Sen. Organisations such as Global Witness have defined Cambodian democracy as a "kleptocratic system" in which the executive branch is closely linked to the military and business elites, involved in timber smuggling, the expropriation of land, the illegal extraction of sand and cannabis trafficking, among other things.

Since the electoral campaign began on 7 July, posters, flags and posters have filled the capital with sky blue, the colour of the ruling People’s Party of Cambodia (CPP). Aside from just a few electoral campaign pictures from the other 19 parties that are going to the polls, the ruling party’s propaganda dominates the urban space.

In the south of the city, between the embassies of neighbouring countries and near the Senate, a group of young people meet at the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation to talk about politics and social problems. These weekly meetings are one of the last refuges where they can debate with relative ease, if not the only one.

"Even though the election hasn’t yet started I can say with a hundred per cent certainty that the CPP will win the election again, no need to compete," Zahron Sokry, a 24-year-old who coordinates the Politikoffee discussion forum, tells Equal Times.

There is much more than electoral apathy behind Zahron Sokry’s claim. In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party - the Party for the National Rescue of Cambodia (CNRP) - and as an alternative to it, many small parties, mostly unknown and some only a few months old, are fighting for the place that the governing party has occupied for almost 40 years.

Noan Sereiboth, 28-year-old sociologist and prolific tweeter, sums up the electoral prospects in a similar way: "We still wonder whether we should go to vote or not; if we go, the CPP wins. If we do not go, the CPP still wins," he says.

Elections: legitimacy questioned

In 2013 the co-founders of the CNRP, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, threatened the hegemony of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party for the first time since the violent decade of the 1990s. The campaign for change gained momentum, driven by the mounting discontent of textile factory workers, of those who lost land in concessions to companies and the free dissemination of information through the newly-arrived social media.

Five years later, Sam Rainsy is out of the country to avoid several legal proceedings against him, a precaution he has had to take several times in his political career, and Kem Sokha has been in preventive detention since September of last year while on trial for treason. About half of the party’s committee has also left the country, while many of its grassroots politicians have defected to swell the ranks of the ruling party.

Of the 25 political prisoners listed by the local human rights organisation Licadho, 18 were members of the defunct party.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have questioned the legitimacy of the elections and have criticised the decline of freedom of expression, association and the press. The increase in repression and surveillance by the government have established a climate of fear and self-censorship in the country, say several of the interviewees for this article.

Although the National Electoral Committee claims it has about 50,000 observers for the elections, the international participants come from undemocratic nations such as China or Myanmar, as well as Singapore. Other recognised local and international observers such as Transparency International or the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) have decided not to participate or have been separated from the process.

The daughter of Kem Sokha and Deputy Director General of Public Affairs of the CNRP, Kem Monovithya, speaking from Washington DC, where she lobbies the international community to take measures against the Hun Sen government, says that the arrest of her father has helped to silence activists and dissidents.” I think people have been practicing self-censorship and since the arrest of my father, they have been living in constant fear, because they saw what happened to him and they think it can happened to anyone if he is still in prison, then any of them can be in prison and won’t be free.” Kem Monovithya says that everything that has happened in the last year has paved the way for "one-party elections", and reports sadly that the health of her father is deteriorating. "The judiciary is not only under the control of the ruling party but under the control of one single person that is Hun Sen," she adds.

Asked about Sam Rainsy’s campaign to boycott the elections, the Cambodian politician explains that, to be more accurate “we are asking for free and fair elections, that will mean postponement of the elections so that the environment can improve, and that the CNRP can be a part of it, so that our leader can be out of prison.”

The return of the opposition party does not seem to be in Hun Sen’s plans. During these elections the president has demonstrated the qualities that have allowed him to remain in power for decades. While holding mass meetings with textile workers, to whom he donates US$5 each, his party threatened legal action against those who incite voters not to participate.

"The courts can initiate legal action...according to the electoral law, the people who obstruct the elections can be fined and face criminal charges," CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told AFP in June.

Furthermore, in May three ministries enacted an ambiguous law to monitor content on social media and web pages during the electoral period, legislation that criminalises content that undermines "national security, public interest and social order" and that affects the privacy of internet users, according to Licadho.

As always since the end of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, the President tells people that his party is the only one that can guarantee that the country does not return to chaos and war.

According to the director of Licadho, Naly Pilorge, the situation "will get worse before it gets better". Furthermore, the director of the NGO - founded in 1992 during the transition to democracy agreed in the Paris Peace Accords of the previous year - thinks that the turning point was the commune/council elections of 2017. “That election was surprising because the opposition party at the time, the CNRP, got at least 44 per cent of the vote and what this means is that if in a commune/council election the opposition party could get that much vote, if there was a competitive election in July 2018 then the opposition party will win”.

Commenting on the forthcoming general elections, Naly Pilorge says that “except for one tiny tiny party” all of them are aligned with the ruling party.

The political party to which the activist refers, the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), has its headquarters next to a modest family restaurant in northern Phnom Penh. There the agronomist and prime ministerial candidate, Yang Saing Koma, explains, near a small garden of aromatic plants, why he has decided to ignore the CNRP’s request not to stand for election. "[The European Union and the United States] are going to recognise the elections anyway, there is no choice, and secondly I think there will be no economic sanctions, we do not want anything like this either."

"Only through the elections can we contribute to taking this country to the next level," adds the candidate. Against all odds and despite the lack of resources, Koma believes they have a chance to win on 29, although he admits that "space is limited".

The general secretary of the GDP, Sam Inn, believes however that the CNRP abused the culture of confrontation with the ruling party to gain popularity. “They liked to attack the Prime Minister with respect to Vietnamese immigrants to gain popularity. And they campaigned on the border just to gain popularity and not to bring real results to people,” he says. “That is not our way of engaging with the ruling party”.

However, the result of the direct confrontation with the elites has also touched the GDP closely. In July 2016 one of the co-founders of the party, the political analyst Kem Ley, was killed in broad daylight at a filling station in the capital. Although Kem Ley had renounced politics, his fierce criticism of the ruling party, corruption and conflicts over the Vietnamese helped him gained increasing popularity.

Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets when the body of the much-loved commentator was finally taken to Takeo, his native province, after a two-week wake.

His death took place two days after the publication of a report by Global Witness that revealed part of the extensive network of companies owned by relatives of Hun Sen and that accused his family of using the state apparatus and its connections with businessmen and military to accumulate his fortune. The accusations of corruption are not the only ones. In its latest list published in 2018, Transparency International ranks Cambodia as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia and one of the most corrupt in the world, in 161st place out of 180 countries.

Since the death of Kem Ley, the Cambodians have not returned to the streets in large numbers. The director of the think-tank Future Forum, Ou Virak, considers that the government has a "naive" and "counterproductive" attitude towards its electorate. "Activists are not the most important thing, it’s the people. The Cambodian government may think they can manipulate information as much as they want, but legitimacy rests with the people, and the people know what is going on." "Even if you shut down the media, how can you force people to vote, and not let them know they are being forced," he asks. “They know.”

In the last year, two newspapers and two independent radio stations with decades of experience have stopped being able to broadcast their programmes, closed down because of Treasury discrimination and harassment, or they have changed hands.

On the other hand, Ou Virak, whose organisation studies solutions to public policies, considers that the CNRP never had a credible proposal to form a government. "The opposition obsession with Vietnam is paying the price and pushing the government into Chinese hands," says the Cambodian, whose family emigrated to the United States in the 1980s as refugees from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

The myth that the Vietnamese steal territory from the Cambodians and are behind any misfortune that occurs in the Asian country has survived to the present in the popular imaginary created for political ends, which has led to sporadic episodes of violence. Hun Sen’s political rivals, not only Sam Rainsy, have exploited this situation thanks to the CPP’s past. Vietnam occupied Cambodia for a decade after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen was part of the government handpicked by Hanoi.

Rapprochement with China and Cambodia’s diplomatic drift

In his book Hun Sen’s Cambodia the journalist Sebastian Strangio writes that Sam Rainsy’s speeches at the end of the 1990s "did not distinguish between illegal immigrants, the Vietnamese government, the business interests of Vietnam and the ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia for generations."

However, along with this perception, tensions are growing among investors and workers from mainland China.

In recent years Cambodia has moved closer than ever to China, an ally that gave it US$100 million in military aid in June and offers the unconditional support that Western powers have denied it. While the United States reduced its cooperation and development aid contribution in February due to "setbacks to democracy", the Asian giant granted US$237 million in aid a few months earlier.

The AidData research initiative of the American university College of William & Mary, noted that Cambodia was a case in point where Beijing used "the carrot of debt relief to reward policymakers for acting in line with its objectives" in a report (published in June) that studies the effect of Chinese diplomacy in the region.

China accounted for US$3,010 million of Cambodia’s public debt, or 70 per cent of bilateral debt at the end of 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest debt sustainability analysis, which classifies the short-term risk as low.

According to IMF data, Cambodia’s debt with China was 15 per cent of GDP in that period, a percentage that is increasing due to Cambodia’s infrastructure needs because, since the 2008 financial crisis, the Asian giant’s bilateral loans are the main driver of the increase in foreign debt.

The economist Miguel Chanco, from the company Pantheon Macroeconomics, believes that “there are valid concerns that Cambodia is taking on too much debt from China, which is manageable now but won’t be over the medium term if it continues at these high levels.”

According to the director of Licadho, the difference between investment and financing from China and that of other countries “is this intense rapid surge from the Chinese mainland, without any cultural, social, political or economic preparation” adding that it could “lead to violence, discrimination and racism, on both sides”.

In January of this year, Yun Min, the governor of the Preah Sihanouk province, one of the focal points of China’s presence in the country, wrote an internal report in which he warned of the arrival of Chinese mafias and warned of its effect on the economy. A foreigner educator located in the south of the country, who has lived in Cambodia for decades and who prefers not to reveal his name, complains of a "feeling of helplessness" due to the massive purchase of businesses and land and points to the presence of places where all the signs are written in Chinese and where people of another nationality are not allowed access.

China’s influence also extends to the digital space. In recent months a well-known group of hackers linked to the Chinese government has carried out a series of attacks against activists, opponents, electoral institutions and bodies of the Cambodian government, according to an investigation by the American cybersecurity firm FireEye. Among those affected is Kem Monovithya who received a fraudulent email with a corrupt programme.

Despite Cambodia’s diplomatic drift, the economy, which is growing by an average of seven per cent in recent years, still depends to a large extent on exports to the United States, and, above all, to the European Union, a bloc with which it enjoys preferential status. These commercial relationships are fundamental for the textile sector, an activity that employs more than 700,000 people, mostly women, and represents about 80 per cent of all the country’s exports.

A European Union mission went to Cambodia from 5 to 11 July to evaluate the "Everything but arms" agreement (which allows access to Cambodian products free of tariffs or quotas) due to "the disturbing evolution of the rights human rights and labour rights in the country," said a post-visit statement. The European Union receives 40 per cent of Cambodian exports, which amounted to €5,000 million (about US$5,850 million ) in 2017. Textiles account for 75 per cent of exports to Europe.

In response, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry sent a delegation this month to prevent the cancellation of the initiative, aimed at promoting development in developing countries.

Chanco believes the ending of the agreement would have disastrous consequences for the economy of Cambodia, which on the basis of GDP per capita, “would be very lucky to reach middle-income status over the next 15 years”. He continues: “It is important to remember that there are other garment-exporting countries in Asia that have much bigger labour markets and that boast much lower labour costs.”

Many of the textile workers, like the majority of Cambodia’s nearly 16 million people, are under the age of 30. For Ou Virak, hope now lies in the young, in teaching them policies that can help in the future.

Zahron Sokry, who like many of his friends has known no other Prime Minister than Hun Sen, is less optimistic and argues that the young are not interested in politics. “Cambodia right now is not really a good place for us to express our opinion, even if we express our ideas on Facebook we will probably get arrested,” said the Cambodian.

This article has been translated from Spanish.