Memories from the Cambodian Election TrailAugust 7, 2013
I returned home to the village pagoda with the taste of afternoon coffee still in my mouth to find Supon waiting for me. He wore a white cap and polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He put down the election pamphlet he was flicking through and ushered me inside. “You know the opposition party, called the CNRP?” He said, “oh yeah, that’s Sam Rainsy’s party”, I replied. He threw a wild glance out the open windows, “keep your voice down”, he hissed. And then, “I was spotted marching for the opposition party and now”, he paused – his face gray with fear – “the CPP… they… they want to arrest me”. “But you haven’t done anything”, I said. “It doesn’t matter”, he replied, “they don’t care – they make up the charges”.
He hung his head, “because I work for the NGO with you it is not safe for you to be here – if they investigate me they could also close down the NGO and arrest you for being a spy”. The CPP apparel hung from his thin limbs like oversized prison clothes.
“OK I’ll leave first thing tomorrow”, I said. Supon smiled in that way Cambodians do when they disagree but don’t want to contradict you. “You mean – leave now?”
I grabbed my laptop, stuffed a rucksack full of clothes and sped off on my red moto. Supon had warned me about spies in the village so I told everyone I was going to Phnom Penh because my friend was sick.
The sky was iron-grey and flecks of rain stung my face. I was told to avoid the local town so I swerved and skidded along the palm-fringed backroads. Looking down from his billboards, Hun Sen watched me fleeing. I passed his constituents who sat, unsmiling, in roadside shacks. I arrived in Phnom Penh three hours later – it was dark and rainy. The night roads were a river of motos.
Coming off the Russian Boulevard, I was suddenly engulfed. CNRP supporters, crammed two or three to a moped, surrounded me with chrome and spluttering steel. The air filled with whistles, chants and exhaust fumes. The traffic gridlocked. “DOE, DOE, DOE”, they chanted (Khmer for “go, go, go”). I battled my way through, exploiting gaps, driving on the pavement and scuttling with my moto between my legs. After two hours I made it, exhausted and angry, to the quiet streets and spiked gates of BKK1.
Once in Phnom Penh, a few emails to my editor had me covering the election for an independent news organisation. The week after the results were announced and both parties claimed victory, I found myself en route to the CNRP headquarters.
Riding on the back of my moto was a journo-nymph with a camera. She could have used her nymph wings to fly if she had wanted, but nymphs are polite and she didn’t want me to go alone. I parked my moto outside a carpenter’s shop near to the venue and picked my way through the traffic jam. The journo-nymph had already appeared inside – hustling for information and clicking her camera. Hundreds of people had gathered there to sign a list affirming that they were illegally denied a vote.
The CPP used many methods of vote rigging. Threats and intimidation, check, offering 10,000 Riel for each vote, check, giving their supporters the chance to vote twice, check, denying CNRP supporters the chance to vote at all, check. It was the latter group that swelled in the courtyard that day. Elderly Yay’s beat their chests remonstrating with useless identity cards, monks stood dignified and dirty-shirted men and women crowded around tables to add their names to the list. Then a huge cheer arose and hundreds of smartphones rose from the crowd like periscopes to catch footage of the man himself, Sam Rainsy.
Security men in olive-green shirts shoved a path through the crowd crushing the delicate journo-nymph who popped out a high-pitched scream. Rainsy and his entourage entered the main building and the doors closed behind them. I jammed my foot in the door and hit the thin door guy with the full force of my Western entitlement – “I was promised an interview”. He let me inside. Up on the balcony, Rainsy addressed the crowd. My journo-nymph had respawned and was again taking pictures and tweeting. Rainsy, despite appearing like a character from Wind in the Willows, is a fine orator. He yelled into two microphones, pumping the crowd into a frenzy, leading them in chants for Hun Sen to step down.
Later that day, I met a guy from the CPP. His bodyguard had the cold, dead eyes of a killer. He sat to my right. His presence was like an open freezer door and gave me chills down one side of my body. Narrowing my right eye to block him from my peripheral vision, I focused on the squat, balding CPP guy I was interviewing. He was hard to get a read on. In some moments I felt sorry for him. He was under pressure and had not slept for days. “These journalists, they call me at 12am, 1am, they don’t care” he said, silencing the second call in 10 minutes. But there were moments when his eyes darkened and his licentious mouth curved in an expression of deep contempt for – I can only assume – humanity as a whole. Despite his power-corrupted heart, he did give me a good interview. Then he left, the Imperial March playing him out.
That was last week and everyone was talking about a huge CNRP protest. Rumours flew left and right. The journo-nymph fielded internet energies like the Oracle in the Matrix. But even she could not find out when and if the mass protests would happen. And now, it seems, the CNRP have lost momentum. We’re all half-bored with it now. Whether they will be able to rouse the numbers necessary to challenge Hun Sen in the streets of Phnom Penh remains to be seen. But it looks increasingly unlikely.
A factual error in this piece was corrected on 08/08/13