Op Op Sato (Congratulations) to Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Cambodian Peoples Party on the resounding victory in 2018 July 29 General Election

August 15, 2018

Op Op Sato (Congratulations) to Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Cambodian Peoples Party on the resounding victory in 2018 July 29 General Election

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The National Election Committee has tonight announced that the ruling CPP secured all 125 parliamentary seats in the national election last month. The voter turnout was 83.02 percent and there were 6,956,900 valid votes, with the CPP garnering 4,889,113, 77.36 percent.The three closest competitors were Funcinpec with 374,510 votes, the League for Democracy Party with 309,364 votes, and the Khmer Will Party with 212,869 votes.

After the election result was announced, the ruling CPP released a statement acknowledging its resounding victory.

“The CPP regrets that a number of foreign communities did not observe the election process … and accused the election of not being free or fair,” the statement added.

“This attitude is strongly insulting to the nearly seven million voters that casted ballots and it does not benefit the development of democracy and peace in Cambodia.”

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Full story on Thursday’s paper

Khmer Times Editorial on 2018 Cambodian Elections (Part 2)

August 14, 2018

Khmer Times Editorial on 2018 Cambodian Elections (Part 2)


New Mandate and New Cabinet: Seize the Moment, Samdech Prime Minister Hun for Major Cabinet Change

Quote: …we cannot have geriatric ministers warming seats in the cabinet, oblivious to the country’s impending perils.

There is no room for short-sightedness in the new cabinet and long-term sustainable policies are needed for the government in its 6th mandate. It should be remembered that “old wine” left out too long will turn into vinegar and poison the chalice. By then, it could be too late. Unquote–Khmer Times Editorial

A veteran Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) official and strategist told Khmer Times editors over the weekend: “Why is it necessary to have a complete overhaul of the 30-member cabinet? Didn’t the existing cabinet and members of the Royal Government get a clear mandate from the Cambodian people on July 29?

“Didn’t they gain a huge approval from the electorate that confidently voted the CPP into Parliament”?

The reaction was stunning to our editors. From the conversation, Khmer Times understands that except for a handful of positions and the shuffling of cabinet ministers, there may not be major changes. Also, there is a very slim chance of senior cabinet members retiring from office.

One political analyst and economist agreed with the sentiment, and euphemistically said that, “old wine in a new bottle” is still better than “old wine in an old bottle”.

In last Friday’s editorial, our editors put forward a cogent argument and gave convincing reasons why just moving incompetent ministers to new portfolios, in the name of maintaining CPP solidarity, would not work out when expectations are running high on the performance of the new government.

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While Prime Minister Hun Sen may be inclined to adopt some measures of “old wine in a new bottle”, the fact that some party seniors are talking about “old wine in an old bottle” is troubling to say the least. If the latter is indeed the case on September 6 – when the new government is formed – it would deal a severe blow to the golden opportunity of the CPP and the Prime Minister to reconfigure and reform the 6th mandate of the Royal government with a young, dynamic and professional cabinet.

Time and again, the prime minister has opted to retain the old guard in portfolios that were beyond their capabilities, based on sentiments and the perceived need to maintain party solidarity and unity. This question now needs to be asked: Why can’t he put the aspirations of the people first?

As a responsible and independent media, Khmer Times has to voice public concerns and aspirations to the leaders in charge. Khmer Times has done its part to strengthen public trust in the government and promote state-society partnership by providing open and transparent platforms for opinion leaders and grassroots leaders to share their perspectives. In turn, it is only expected that the country’s leaders now put aside their own self-interests and serve the people.

If it is a forgone conclusion that we do indeed have “old wine in an old bottle” on September 6, we fervently hope that this will not be for the full tenure of the cabinet but on an interim basis while the Prime Minister further strengthens party unity and solidarity and builds up a younger, dynamic and professional cabinet with the 2022 commune election and 2023 election in mind. As it is, there is no room for complacency and being overconfident that the CPP will be re-elected back with another overwhelming majority is just delusional thinking, if no efforts are made to present a more dynamic and professional cabinet to the people.


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Bold reforms must continue to be undertaken to fight corruption and also instill accountability in all ministries and government departments. The ethos of public service must be fully ingrained in the DNA of all cabinet ministers and public servants. If need be, the prime minister should not hesitate to call on members of his cabinet to answer questions at the National Assembly in order to make them more accountable to the public.

The threat of sanctions would be lessened if Cambodia can put forward a government with a new cabinet that is seen by the international community as fully competent and professional, with cabinet members passionately taking the interests of the people at heart.

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The sanctions proposed by the US and the European Union might include denying Cambodian garment exports tax-free access to their markets, causing a loss of over $650 million in export revenue.

Sanctions are in no one’s interests and there are ample experiences globally to indicate that it would be only the poor that suffer – in this case around a million poor Cambodian factory workers, most of them women, in the garment sector.

To deal with these looming threats, we again reiterate that we need a new cabinet making innovative policies that will not hesitate to take the bull by its horns. For this to eventuate, we cannot have geriatric ministers warming seats in the cabinet, oblivious to the country’s impending perils.

Cambodia, whatever policies or strategies it adopts, should not fall prey to the manipulation of great power politics as any sudden shift in superpower policies would leave the Kingdom vulnerable and once again it could become a pawn as it was in the early 1970s.

There is no room for short-sightedness in the new cabinet and long-term sustainable policies are needed for the government in its 6th mandate. It should be remembered that “old wine” left out too long will turn into vinegar and poison the chalice. By then, it could be too late.

Khmer Times Editorial on July 29, 2018 Cambodian Elections (Part 1)

August 14, 2018

Khmer Times Editorial on July 29, 2018 Cambodian Elections (Part 1)

Mr Prime Minister – No old wine in a new bottle, please


The Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) received an outright majority in the July 29 election. KT/Mai Vireak


As Prime Minister Hun Sen moves with remarkable speed and determination to establish the new cabinet of the 6th mandate of Royal Government, with the first cabinet meeting to be called on September 7, the line up of the cabinet itself is shrouded in secrecy.

The grapevine is abound with speculations that there will be some drastic movements of senior ministers from one ministry to another such as Interior, Land Management, Finance, Education, Council of Ministers, Agriculture, Environment, Mines and Industry.

Image result for HE Prime Minister Hun Sen gets a new Mandate 0n July 29, 2018

With a bigger mandate comes greater responsibility and the CPP should now be on “all hands on board” mode. There is no more honeymoon period. The new cabinet should hit the ground running. The outright majority given to the CPP and the whitewash of the opposition should be a wakeup call to the government and the CPP, not the other way around.–Khmer Times Editorial

More young faces are expected to be thrown into the mix with key indicators on their performances, with the aim to inject fresh ideas and to improve public confidence in state institutions. But some old hands are expected to remain at least until mid-term to bring stability and smoothen the transition to the new cabinet.

Irrespective of whether these speculations turn out to be spot on or otherwise, one thing must be conveyed to the Prime Minister. The Cambodian people and the diplomatic community, who have largely accepted the election results, do not wish to see “old wine in a new bottle”.

Concrete and robust reforms must be implemented otherwise the legitimacy of the new cabinet will fade away. When that legitimacy goes, international pressure in the form of sanctions could be hanging like a Damocles Sword over Cambodia’s head.

People want, expect and demand structural changes and a new leadership style to be more transformative and innovative. The new cabinet cannot carry on with their responsibilities, new or old, in the old manner and it cannot be business as usual. New ministers should be given leverage and latitude to bring in their own key people, not family members but technocrats and experts with them to achieve their key performance indicators. For too long, in this country, nepotism has hindered bureaucratic capacity and governance reforms.

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Cambodia’s Capital–Phnom Penh

The old ministers, the elders (if it is a more respectful way of categorizing them) should be there to mentor the younger ministers and then retire and fade away from the ministerial and executive scene to just concentrate on party work to ensure that the CPP brings about change from the top to the very bottom. It’s at the grassroots that the CPP’s bastion of power lies and all efforts must be made to reconnect with them.

In reality, some cabinet members, with ranks of senior ministers and advisors have been in the same position for a good 20 years and have been chugging along with their work but with no clear future objectives and plans. They, instead, wait for top down instructions and are hesitant to initiate action on their own. This often results in the public trying to avoid these ministries and seeking alternatives instead, which often defeats the public service mantra that the government is trying to promote.

It is expected the time tested Rectangular Strategy will continue to be the main objective of the 6th mandate. However, there should be a careful examination of some of the key priority areas that affect rural constituents. Any failure to implement policies at the grassroots level could lead to a backlash in 2022 and 2023.

It should not be business as usual, not only for the cabinet but also for the ‘little Napoleons’ (a term we have used repeatedly) at the grassroots level. The ‘little Napoleons’ through their arrogant actions often hurt and destroy the overall goodwill, support and credibility at the district and commune levels. Quite clearly, if such behavior spirals out of control, it will be counterproductive to the government’s aspirations.

Corruption and the issue of judicial independence must also be tackled in a highly concerted, coherent and cohesive manner. These issues have been around since the first mandate and remain until now and this probably is the last opportunity the government in its 6th mandate has to make things right.

Cambodia can indeed learn from China in the fight against corruption. Xi Jinping’s personal mission has been tackling corruption since he became president. Mr Xi has now set up a new, strict, anti-corruption agency that oversees millions of people. Why can’t the same be done in Cambodia to root out this evil?

Things should never be taken for granted. An outright win in 2018 does not mean that there will be the same margin of support in the next commune election in 2022 and the next general election in 2023. Let’s not forget that the results of the 2013 general election and the 2017 commune election did prove that a power shift was highly probable. The people can vote a government in and they can also vote it out. The government and the CPP should not and must not forget the Malaysian example where after 60 years the ruling party was ousted on a platform of deceit and populist policies embarked on by the opposition.

The new cabinet and National Assembly must also take note that legislation like the Election Law, no matter how sacrosanct it might seem to be, can be amended to include multi-party representation through elections.

The media and the public should not treat the government with kid’s gloves. They must be brave enough to be critical of the government from the start, otherwise it will eventually slip back into its old habits. There must be a constant reminder that the new cabinet is committed to implementing reforms, as promised to the electorate, and there can be no backtracking on that.

The new cabinet must be transparent and ministers must avail themselves to the media. Spokespersons in the various ministries must receive proper training on how to engage the media. Turning off their phones or hanging up on a call is not the way to deal with media inquiries, as it tarnishes the reputation of the spokespersons – and this in turn will erode the public’s trust of the government.

In the first mandate, then second Prime Minister Hun Sen used to have regular “meet the press” sessions at the office of the Council of Ministers. This should be brought back and they should have a reliable and knowledgeable spokesperson or spokespersons to provide accurate responses instead of resorting to mere rhetoric.

With a bigger mandate comes greater responsibility and the CPP should now be on “all hands on board” mode. There is no more honeymoon period. The new cabinet should hit the ground running. The outright majority given to the CPP and the whitewash of the opposition should be a wakeup call to the government and the CPP, not the other way around.

The people have spoken through the ballot box. They can also use the same ballot box to give the Government and the CPP a rude awakening the next time around if reforms, deliverables, people centric policies, transparency, corruption and abuse of power, nepotism and cronyism are not tackled.

Welsh on PAS in Terengganu

August 5, 2018

Welsh on PAS in Terengganu

by Dr. Bridget Welsh


Terengganu Crystal Mosque

The so-called Islam Hadhari in Kuala Terengganu built during the Badawi Era

COMMENT | On Malaysia’s beautiful east coast, PAS is experiencing a sweet honeymoon in Terengganu. On the ground, PAS is similarly receiving the positive energy and goodwill felt in the Klang Valley towards Pakatan Harapan.

In fact, one could even argue that Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar’s leadership of Terengganu is seen as one of the most dynamic nationally at the state level. With less resistance to its leadership within the civil service, a young professional team and a focus on economic development for the state, PAS’ new government is working to establish itself. Dr Sam, as he is known, is quickly coming out of  Abdul Hadi Awang’s shadow, despite being his protégé.

The challenges PAS faces in Terengganu are significant. The state’s oil and gas revenue are on the decline. UMNO seriously depleted the state funds in its mismanagement, leaving little in the coffers. The sharp disparities between the wealthier south and poorer north remain large. Some of the northern areas around Setiu are among the poorest in Malaysia.

Read this: https://thetravelintern.com/reasons-you-should-visit-beautiful-terengganu-malaysia/

There remains a large dependence on government assistance, with a “bantuan” mindset deeply entrenched. There is a large young population in search of jobs, and a deficit of opportunities in the marketplace. Unlike in entrepreneurial Kelantan, more Trengganuites opt to stay in their own state and this reinforces a more insular orientation and conservativism.


These factors converge on three key issues – a need for money, a need for new drivers in the local economy and a need for leadership to move the state toward greater modernity.

Learning lessons

What will be crucial to PAS’ success in moving Terengganu forward is whether they learn the lessons associated with GE-14 and avoid their party’s mistakes of the past. The May 2018 election has striking similarities to that of 1999 when PAS won the state in the groundswell of anger against Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his local stand-in, Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, the former Chief Minister in office from 1974 to 1999.

PAS’ 2018 victory in Terengganu was decisive. Not only did they win 22 seats in the 32-seat state assembly, a large majority in the state government, they also secured six of the eight parliamentary seats. There was a swing of 8% overall toward PAS this election, which in the history of Terengganu is one of the largest swings, although not as large as that experienced elsewhere in GE-14.

A first potential mistake is to assume that this victory was a vote for PAS, rather than a vote against UMNO. Sure, the Islamic party’s grassroots did support the party, but the majority of new votes it received came courtesy of Najib Razak. Trengganuites voted strategically, for the party that was the most likely to defeat UMNO, most organised on the ground and most familiar in the risk-adverse environment.

PAS thus faces the task of giving voters a reason to continue to support it, as anger to Najib and his GST no longer serves as a lightning rod for discontent. Given the continued divisions within UMNO in Terengganu, however, PAS is in a relatively safe position, but its foundation of support remains weak.

Second, and perhaps even more important, in Terengganu, this election was not a “green tsunami”. The state’s vote was not about religion or even religious leadership. Voters were not voting for Hadi Awang, or the 2004 election slogan of “Islam for all”. The waters shaping the state’s political tide were BN blue and if there was a tsunami at all, it was a “greed tsunami” that drove Umno’s excesses at the national and state level.

This lesson is especially important for Terengganu as it is where PAS went wrong after 1999, interpreting its victory as a green light toward religious conservatism and the imposition of a restrictive religious agenda. While most Terengganuites are religiously conservative compared to many of their counterparts elsewhere in Malaysia and religion is an important part of their daily lives (which it is for most Malaysians across faiths), religion is not the main priority of voters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville – it was the economy and to think otherwise would be stupid.

If there was an area where morals did in fact play a role, it is in the area of good governance. Terengganuites – as do most Malaysians – want a government that is not corrupt. There are residual questions involving the allegations on the use of UMNO money by PAS and the ties between the parties, which will not be cleared up with a legal case that will only serve to remind voters of this issue.

The challenge for the new PAS government will be not to return to the past when by 2004 questions were being asked about the distribution of contracts and patronage, and to make sure that the state government remains clean and different from that it kicked out of office. This will involve some clean-up within PAS itself, which will not be easy given differences within the party over contentious issues such as the relationship with Umno and management of money.

Difficult decisions

To embrace a focus on pragmatic delivery and better governance, PAS has to deal with two obstacles.

The first is within Terengganu PAS itself. This is the state where the traditional internal party struggle between the “professionals” and “ustaz” was perhaps the most acute. While these labels are no longer as relevant as they were in the past to define factions in the party (in part because many professionals are actually ustaz as well), Dr Sam’s team is now seen as the new “Young Turks” pushing for a different path within the party.

There is resistance from many older leaders to this change, especially since many of those being brought into the government and its GLCs are not from Terengganu. For now, Terengganu PAS is not focused on inclusive national governance, but on a path tied to having deliverables in the present rather than in the afterlife. The pull of conservatism within PAS in Terengganu is even stronger than the conservatism in the state itself. The question ahead is whether the older generation of leaders will give way to younger ones. Hadi Awang’s role is important in this regard.


The second obstacle for PAS is to manage the political relationships in New Malaysia. While those in Selangor focus on the UMNO-PAS relationship – it is one of the main issues in the Sungai Kandis by-election where in fact many PAS leaders (although not all) are supporting UMNO – on the East Coast, there is much greater distance between these two parties. In fact, to secure the oil royalty and the much-needed funds noted above, eyes are on Pakatan Harapan and especially the need for PAS to maintain cordial ties with Bersatu and PKR.

Terengganu PAS knows that a relationship with UMNO is no longer advantageous, and in fact would be seen negatively by many of its voters. UMNO now is a political liability and more in need of PAS than vice-versa. The status of the relationship between PAS and other parties is likely to unfold in the months ahead. There are different views and interests that point to greater distance rather than connectively between the two traditional Malay parties. The two obstacles are interconnected as what happens within PAS itself will shape who it allies itself with or whether it opts to go it alone – at least for now.

Developments in Terengganu will have national impact. This is another chance for PAS to show whether it is capable of governing, and Terengganu’s success will be directly tied to whether it can make a political comeback elsewhere. PAS remains an important national political player. Developments in the state will also reveal what its priorities are and shape relationships in New Malaysia.

For now, Terengganu PAS is capitalising on its welcome by voters, but as it moves forward, the lessons it learns and decisions it makes will determine whether Terengganu will make a turn toward a more modern future.

Dr, BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is titled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

2018 Cambodian Elections

July 31, 2018

2018 Cambodian Elections

Image result for Hun Sen wins 2018 Cambodian Elections


Breaking News – Cambodian PM Hun Sen Wins 2018 Election to become World’s Longest Leader. CPP wins resoundingly. Op Op Sato. The Cambodian People have spoken. Time to move and surge forward in peace, stability and development. –Din Merican

Khmer Times reports:

The voter turnout at Cambodia’s sixth national election was 82.17% percent of the total of 8,380,217, registered voters or 6,885,729 according to figures announced by the National Election Committee when polls nationwide closed at 3pm.

According to election observers there have been no reports of voter intimidation or violence.

“It has been a peaceful environment and people have expressed their will freely. No violence has been reported,” said a local observer, who did not want to be named. It shows the Cambodian people have chosen continuity and certainty,” he added.

Another observer from Turkey, who asked not to be identified said that he was pleasantly surprised by the high level of competence shown by the NEC officials and the relaxed mood of the voters.

Yet another from Indonesia echoed his Turkish counterpart’s comments and added that the observers had issued an official statement which very much declared what they saw.

“We did not see any need to deviate from the facts as we saw them as even random non organized checks showed the same orderly fashion. Only setback was the lack of observers from some smaller parties in some stations.”

Observations on the 2018 Cambodian Election

By Katrin Travouillon (with Chanroeun Pa) – 27 Jul, 2018


Cambodia will vote on Sunday July 29. Today, the 20 competing parties can make their final appeals to the voters. It is the endpoint of a campaign that many have dramatically dismissed as a death knell for Cambodian democracy. Both publicly—through articles and social media posts—and in private conversations, people often draw on their observations and memories of Cambodia’s past elections to weigh in on the state of politics and to consider what options remain.

First, some background. National elections are held every five years. In 2013, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), headed by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, came close to defeating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The results shocked the ruling party, which has effectively been in charge of the country’s affairs for almost four decades.

After the commune elections in 2017 demonstrated that popular discontent with Cambodia’s longstanding leadership had not ceased, the government began a series of drastic measures. Sokha was accused of plotting a “colour revolution” with the help of the US and jailed on treason charges, for which he could face 14 years imprisonment. Rainsy left the country under threat of defamation charges. In November 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition party and barred its members from political activities for five years before redistributing their seats. The bulk of them went back to the ruling party, a handful were scattered among other “opposition” parties.

So on Sunday, 19 parties will contest the CPP’s powerful grip. But without a major opposition party, this year’s election looks markedly different than previous ones.

The 2013 elections provide the most common backdrop to structure people’s observations of this year’s campaigns: compared to the bustling excitement and the loud and cheerful confidence displayed by CNRP voters all over the country, the opposition parties’ campaigns this year are mostly remarkable for what they are not. Even the capital Phnom Penh, otherwise the hub of campaign activities, is mostly silent and few things indicate that challengers to the CPP remain.

Yet for someone who has spent years combing through archives that document the work of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) it is the country’s first elections that still shape observations, at times producing an almost eerie sense of déjà vu:

what exactly is the role and agenda of the small parties? Will the government track voters’ choices in the ballot boxes? What will the total numbers of votes cast reveal about the future of Cambodia’s democracy?

These questions, now on the forefront of many voters’ minds, were just as intensely debated 25 years ago. At the end of its mission to implement the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, UNTAC organised the country’s first democratic elections in 1993. The highly anticipated event was globally celebrated (some might say overly glorified) as the “birth of democracy” in Cambodia.

In 1993 as well as in 2018 a total of 20 parties registered to compete in the elections. However, then, as now, the concept of a “political competition of ideas” was mostly elusive in an environment marked by fear and insecurity.

In 1993 it was the memories of the war that loomed large. During their televised campaign speeches Cambodian politicians alluded repeatedly to “mountains of bones, rivers of blood and an ocean of suffering” and appealed to their fellow politicians to prioritise national reconciliation. The theme was also evident in the parties’ names—Khmer Neutral Party or Liberal Reconciliation Party—and party symbols that used images like shaking hands or the peace dove.

Amidst the ongoing political violence in the country, the candidates chose their campaign locations and words carefully. “We live with the tiger and therefore must act in such a way as to avoid being eaten”, explained a candidate to an UNTAC official. Another observer noted in his report: “… the Bulletin of the Democratic Party is printed in a no-fuss black and white typescript. The Bulletin’s lackluster presentation style is carried over in content. This is no doubt a deliberate tactic to avoid direct criticism and the possibility of harassment.”

In 2018 similar tendencies can be observed. Many of the CPP’s competitors embrace the least objectionable of all causes in their campaigns and vaguely profess to “protect forests” or “end poverty” once in power. In his office, one party leader handed me a small program, the size of half a postcard, and gestured towards the breast pocket of his shirt: Easy to put it in here, he said. Easy to hide. And of course, small programs are also cheaper: most of the parties are notoriously under-financed and have only limited funding to spend on the campaigns. They focus their attention on going door to door in the provinces, talking to prospective voters and distributing their leaflets.

In the space of the city of Phnom Penh this translates into an overwhelming presence for the CPP. Huge, well-lit billboards have been erected at major intersections of the city. They line many of the large boulevards, streets and bridges. The party’s programs, slogans, and symbols have been glued to building walls at regular intervals. The portraits of the party’s leaders, Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, shoulder by shoulder, are omnipresent. There are tents, where party supporters alternately play campaign speeches and music. Expensive cars adorned with the CPP symbol can be spotted all over town. Shops sell CPP hats, shirts, phone cases and other merchandise. Rallies involve thousands of identically dressed supporters in cars, open trucks, and motorbikes and are flawlessly choreographed events: police are positioned on every corner, their ears pressed to their walky-talkies, waiting for their signal to stop the traffic and wave the motorcades through.

Amidst all of this, the campaigns of the other parties are difficult to find. None have a single billboard; their signs are small, mostly at the outskirts of the city, by the side of dusty roads. Some have taken to parking tuk-tuks decorated with flags and equipped with loudspeakers that blast recorded campaign speeches by their leaders towards the passers-by. Their processions have dramatically fewer supporters and the authorities are less likely to support their way through the city’s dense traffic, often leading to the campaign processions being cut into smaller and smaller groups of supporters.

In 1993, cognisant of the CPP’s relative wealth and reach even at that time, UNTAC tried to level the playing field by creating a radio station and then distributing radios in the provinces. One might assume that with the advent of social media and the intense popularity of Facebook in Cambodia the smaller parties could make up for much of the financial, material, and organisational limitations of their campaigns by reaching out to their supporters online. Yet, the government’s announcement to monitor social media ahead of the elections has spooked many and it is almost as quiet and monotonous on the web as it is in the streets of Phnom Penh.

Despite these restrictions and regardless of the media used, rumours travel fast in every era. To express their concerns and ask for advice in the run-up to the 1993 elections listeners from around the country wrote to the UNTAC radio station, which sometimes received several hundred letters a day. During a special program, selected letters would be read and answered on air. People had heard of magic pens or spy drones, and contacted UNTAC for advice.

Similar stories circulate today. Smartphones and their integrated cameras make it unnecessary to imagine more elaborate methods of surveillance inside the ballot box, but the dominant themes of those rumours remain the same: people worry about the government’s ability to compromise the secrecy of the vote.

Which brings us to one last point: the current preoccupation with the total number of votes cast. During a televised statement in 1993, In Tam, the leader of the Democratic Party, urged his fellow people to go and vote to guarantee that Cambodia would no longer be isolated:

“Please participate in the elections; so that there are 90 percent or even more, so that they can see that we want to be a country that obeys the law and lives under the rule of law… Today they regard us as people living under the rule of the jungle, today there is nobody who recognises us; so if we do not all go to the elections, if we can’t be bothered to vote, then we will continue being a country that is excluded from the global community, so mobilise everything there is.”

And indeed, 90% did turn out, providing observers with the key element of their success story—despite the fact that both before and after the ballot it was business as usual and power-play and bargaining, not the will of the people, determined the end result.

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Today, Sam Rainsy and his supporters urge the Cambodian people to stay at home to demonstrate that democracy can survive. Those who must go, they say, should spoil their ballots. They have dismissed all other parties as puppets or traitors and will claim every vote not cast for any party.

It is likely because of the tendency of the former CNRP members to bring up the Paris Peace Agreements, in their appeals from abroad, that people continue to regularly bring up UNTAC themselves: “they [UNTAC] installed the two prime ministers and then just left”, a shop owner said yesterday. A few days earlier she had also noted that “nobody will come to help because they already spent so much money then”.

Many commentators have loudly declared these elections “a farce”, “already over”, and “history” weeks before the polls have opened. And while it is true that Hun Sen is not going to disappear from the world stage by means of this vote, such statements are dismissive of those who are still grappling with the question of what the right decision under these difficult circumstances is.

To those people, who had neither the luxury to learn about the country’s history in libraries or archives, nor the convenience to observe and comment from the sidelines, it is the memory of another election that looms large: that of 1998 and the clashes leading up to it that turned Phnom Penh once again into a war zone.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Hun Sen’s government has conducted riot training and provided new equipment to officers around the country. Two days before the vote people are wondering: is the current suspense the proverbial silence before storm, or is it the silence before the silence? And what is worse? “We have stocked up on dry noodles, just in case”, a market vendor said.

Looking back, it becomes painfully obvious that not only are Cambodia’s elections flawed, they are also a flawed vehicle to trace political change in Cambodia. To those still committed to peaceful change, the simplistic tales of “birth” and “death” of democracy are meaningless. Cambodians will, as one party official said, just continue to use and engage whatever space remains. “It is important for us as Khmer, the leaders and the citizens, we must try ourselves, trust in ourselves and hope. We cannot give up. If we give up, if we think it is impossible, if we only think of losing, who is going to help us?”

‘Democracy has died’ in Cambodia. Really ?

July 28, 2018

‘Democracy has died’ in Cambodia. Really ?

Scared and on the run, members of the opposition mount campaign against legitimacy of strongman leader Hun Sen

Garment workers take pictures with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen
Hun Sen’s victory in the Cambodian election is seen as a foregone conclusion. Photograph: Samrang Pring/Reuters


Over the past ten months, Ky Wandara’s life has, by his own account, been hell. As the former treasurer of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for 20 years he had fought to bring the dictatorial three-decade rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen to an end.

But in October, just weeks after Hun Sen began a crackdown which saw the CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, arrested for treason and the eventual dissolution of the party altogether, Ky Wandara was forced to flee to Thailand, along with over 100 CNRP members.

He has no hope of returning home. The crackdown in Cambodia has intensified and in Sunday’s election, Hun Sen has no legitimate challengers. While over 20 parties will run in the election, they are either considered to be bogus (candidates include an ex-warlord and a woman who claims that spirits came to her in a dream and instructed her to run) or puppets for Hun Sen.


Even though the CNRP’s key figures have been exiled, the party’s leader, Sam Rainsy, who lives in Paris, and Deputy CNRP President Mu Sochua, who is in Berlin, have led calls for voters to boycott the election as the only way to undermine Hun Sen’s inevitable victory. Hun Sen retaliated, calling the boycott “illegal”.

Most CNRP exiles remain in Thailand, but such are the reaches of Hun Sen, they all still live in secret, many moving location every few days to ensure they are not found and handed back to Cambodia. According to Ky Wandara, CNRP exiles were warned by those still in Cambodia that the authorities had sent 400 agents over the border to track them down and monitor their movements in Thailand.

‘We are alone’

“It is scary and lonely,” Ky Wandara says. Having managed to get political asylum in New Zealand in January, he is one of the only exiles who has felt free to describe his ordeal without fear of compromising his safety. There are still over 100 living under the radar in Thailand.

“You have to move around to new accommodation every week for security, and we are alone because if we stay together you can be traced more easily,” he said. “Everyone is scared that the Thai authorities or Hun Sen’s spies will find them and force them back to Cambodia.”

Ky Wandara knew he would have to flee the country the moment he saw his name on the government list of 118 figures banned from politics last September.

“My wife told me recently that her car window was smashed and my driver just told me that the police had been following him because they thought I might still be in Cambodia. And for my colleagues in Battambang, whenever they go out from their homes, the police follow them.”

For those who did escape, much of their fear is rooted in a rumoured deal between the Cambodian and Thai authorities in which the two countries are thought to have agreed to send back wanted dissidents. Last year Hun Sen called on Thai authorities to “chase” CNRP exiles living in Bangkok and several of the dissidents have since been visited by the Thai police.

Their worst fears were confirmed in February when the Thai authorities sent back Sam Sokha, a Cambodian woman who ran away to Thailand after being caught on film throwing her shoe at an image of Hun Sen, despite her being recognised as a political refugee by the United Nations.

A dangerous campaign

The plight of the exiles in Thailand is just one element of a climate of fear that has gripped Cambodia in the build up to the election on Friday. With no legitimate opposition, Hun Sen’s victory is seen as a foregone conclusion. Even the election monitors have close ties to the prime minister – one is being run by his son.

“This election is a sham, a disaster,” Mu Sochua, the CNRP deputy president who also lives in exile, told the Guardian. “There is no way for voters to express themselves in this election – there is widespread intimidation and threats – and there is nothing legitimate about this election at all. We will continue to call on voters to boycott the election.”

The Cambodian election body recently declared calls for boycott a “crime”, while the Chief of Police has said the “clean fingers campaign” – a reference to the absence of indelible ink voters use to mark their skin after casting a ballot – is “equivalent to preventing people from voting” and therefore “illegal”. Interior minister Sar Kheng said voters who took part in the boycott could face fines of up to $5000.

The Guardian spoke to numerous voters and former CNRP members who have faced intimidation and threats of imprisonment by authorities for voicing support of a boycott. A garment worker at a factory on Veng Sreng Boulevard, where post-election workers protests were violently suppressed by Cambodia’s paramilitary forces in 2014, shared a rumour she heard on the factory floor. “I heard if I do not go to vote, the factory will fire us,” she said, asking to remain anonymous.

Villagers in the former opposition stronghold of Kampong Cham have been greeted by CPP authorities going door-to-door in recent weeks, and are being told that if they don’t vote for the CPP their lives will be made difficult. One villager, who was overheard saying he would rather sleep than vote on 29 July, was threatened with prison if he repeated the sentiment.

Chak Sopheap, from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said voter turnout had become an “extremely sensitive” topic for the ruling party.

“This election has become more of a referendum on the government’s legitimacy,” she said. “The pressure to vote is fierce.”

“Those calling for a boycott have repeatedly been labelled as traitors and revolutionaries by senior government officials. In rural areas, people with ‘clean fingers’ can be easily identified by local authorities and party activists from the ruling party, and many are fearful of the consequences.”

Despite those consequences, Than Sorith, a member of the CNRP working group in Kampong Cham, was still determined to abstain from voting on Sunday.

“I will not go to vote, I will boycott,” he said. “We have to do something, not just stay quiet. We must be brave.”