Memories from the Cambodian Election Trail

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.

Shane Thomas

A factual error in this piece was corrected on 08/08/13

28 thoughts on “Memories from the Cambodian Election Trail

  1. Uncle Monty Reply

    “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”

    How many barangs have been arrested for spying in Cambodia? Seems someone wanted you to leave, and it was probably the NGO.

    “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.”

    Yes, it’s a police state.

    “denying CNRP supporters the chance to vote at all”

    And CNRP voters blocked ethnic minorities in Cambodia from voting. Both sides are guilty.

    So Sam never mentioned the y word then?

    A disgraceful piece of writing that hits on the problems with the CPP, but doesn’t mention the racism of Rainsy and his CNRP supporters, which the writer either agrees with, didn’t understand in the speeches or believes it is the better of two evils.

    • IndoorLoco Reply

      “And CNRP voters blocked ethnic minorities in Cambodia from voting. Both sides are guilty.”

      You must be talking only about the “Vietnamese”, right? Obviously there are many ethnic minority groups (Lao, Burmese, Chinese, Cham, Javanese, and other ethnic tribal peoples) who you don’t seem to refer to. Since CPP has been known to be corrupt and grant VOTER’s ID’s to illegal ethnic Vietnamese immigrants and that is why that incident happened. But don’t worry. If those “ethnic minorities” are legal citizen of Cambodia, they should be registering their complaints with the CPP-dominated National Election Committee to find justice for them. However, I don’t think those “ethnic minorities” will do that because they don’t even know how to speak a word of Khmer. Nice try.

      “So Sam never mentioned the y word then?”

      So what is the big deal with the y word because those Vietnamese are known as simply youn in the Khmer language anyway. There is nothing wrong to call the Vietnamese youn if you are speaking the Khmer language. The British and the Irish call the Americans the “Yankees” and no one cares about it. See it is the y word too.

      “A disgraceful piece of writing that hits on the problems with the CPP, but doesn’t mention the racism of Rainsy and his CNRP supporters, which the writer either agrees with, didn’t understand in the speeches or believes it is the better of two evils.”

      Rainsy has racism towards the Vietnamese? Can you please prove it with your overwhelming evidence please. In Cambodia right now under the CPP government, the Vietnamese are the most successful and prosperous than any ethnic groups, maybe with the exception of the Chinese. Evidence shows that Vietnamese are owners of Cambodia’s national airline carrier (Have you ever flown AngkorAir before?) Vietnamese are controllers of Cambodia’s famous tourist attraction sites, casinos, fishery, major supermarkets and restaurants, plantations, and other areas such as import/export and phone/Internet services. Vietnamese work as Cambodia’s police officers, border patrol guards, soldiers, and government minsters. The most powerful evidence is the fact that Vietnamese immigrants living in Cambodia can easily find jobs and be prosperous, while the great majority of the Cambodians have no jobs and have to migrate to other countries. The Vietnamese get richer and more powerful by the minutes, which the Cambodians are living below the poverty line. In general Vietnamese outlive their Cambodian counterparts by so many years. If this evidence shows that Cambodia is racist towards Vietnamese then the fault finders simply do not know what justice is in this world. It is better that the fault finders go to Vietnam and protect the Vietnamese poor over there rather than staying in Cambodia trying to beat down the Cambodians in general.

      • Dirty Expat (Dirty for short) Reply

        Indoor Loco you are on spot! When you and Sam Rainsy throw around ‘youn’ to label Vietnamese its as harmless as when I use the word ‘nigger’ to label niggers. It’s harmless!

        If Cambodia had a history of committing atrocities against unarmed immigrant civilians from Vietnam it would be one thing but there are only a few isolated incidents spanning the Lon Nol regime, the Khmer Rouge regime and the KPRP/CPP era in which only a few tens of thousands of people were murdered. Its no big deal.

        Besides, don’t worry about what the Vietnamese have accumulated in Cambodia anyway because the CPP is balancing it by giving everything else away to the Chinese. At least the Thais aren’t getting anything, right?

        And one more thing – I bet Sam Rainsy would be a lot different than the current group of corrupt cronyists in power. Being a rich overseas Cambodian from a Chinese merchant family who hid from the misery that most Cambodians had to endure is exactly the kind of leader Cambodia needs if it is going to seriously address problems like corruption and land grabbing. You know, he’s a financial guy and they are very trustworthy!

        Once again, you are spot on!

    • Bo Reply

      I’m not so sure that CNRP is racist. What they are trying to say is that the Hun Sen government is giving too many endowments toward Vietnamese. Cambodians view immigration laws as inconsistent when dealing with Vietnamese. When white people came to live in Cambodia from the West, they have to pay a lot of money, an arm and a leg, not so lucky, while Vietnamese get a free ride to the citizenships with the right to vote. If we believe that Cambodia is a melting pot, then every one should able to come to Cambodia with little restriction or no restriction at all, not merely for the Vietnamese. For white people who try to become Cambodian citizens, is like going up the creek and they even go to the King to ask for citizenships. This is not just unfair but also racist.

      At the voting booths, Cambodians stop many of these Vietnamese from voting because they believe these people do not have the right to vote, when these Vietnamese could not read or write their name in Khmer on the voting lists. In the US, people have to know enough English to pass Citizenship Test before they even have the right to vote. That is the rule of laws.

  2. IndoorLoco Reply

    “The CPP used many methods of vote rigging.” That is what I am talking about! That is exactly it! The Khmer have a saying: “Pure gold never fears fire.” It means if you are 100% innocent, you will never be afraid of any scrutiny. The CPP refuses time and time again not to let the independent outsider like the UN and other to investigate the election irregularities. The world needs transparency in the Cambodian national election.

  3. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    A rather impartial and biased article. “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.” WTF?

    • IndoorLoco Reply

      I see it different from your view. I think this article clearly speaks objectively about the corruption and illegality of the CPP which has been holding Cambodia/Cambodians in its grip for over 28 long years. It is not like this is the first time they did it, you know. Even at the village level, people are not free from the CPP harassment. They were once Khmer Rouge, and so you can never take the Khmer Rougeness out from them CPP, no matter what. To gain and get more gains are their motto.

      • Dermot Sheehan Reply

        Some were what you call “Khmer Rouge”, some weren’t, they were Khmer Minh who had been in Hanoi since 1954, some were neither. Many lived through more than 30 years of hardship and war, so you can expect them to look rather tough, unlike someone like Sam Rainsy who deserted Cambodia in the 1960s and had a life of luxury in France.

    • Carlos Spiceyweiner Reply

      If you love the CPP so much why don’t you marry them?

  4. IndoorLoco Reply

    Cambodian-Vietnamese Relationship – A Westerner Anecdote.

    “On an anecdotal level, after traveling in Cambodia I’ve concluded that the Cambodian people as a whole are friendlier than the Vietnamese people. (…)

    While I found Cambodians to be nice, I’m not so sure how nice they are to Vietnamese people…

    Now, I’ve been pondering this dislike for a the last couple weeks since I’ve come back from Cambodia. Which has had me wondering what the cause of this dislike is…and I’ve come up with two theories so far:

    1) Cambodia’s past is frequented by Vietnamese invasions whether they’re cultural or physical (think war); with the most recent physical invasion in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. Thus, while this war ended a brutal dictatorship, it was decried by Cambodians everywhere because it was an invasion of their own soverign nation and was a reminder of all the previous invasions by Vietnam as well. Most peoples don’t like invading forces in their countries; think the Iraqi people after we ‘liberated’ them from Saddam. It simply doesn’t sit well, especially if there is a history of it!

    Simple markets in Cambodia are controlled by Cambodians, but the big ‘markets’ are frequently run by Vietnamese.

    2) A commercial invasion: many of the biggest companies and most export/import, is run by Vietnamese or Vietnamese firms. (Cambodia’s rice industry is actually very dependent on Vietnamese buyers/exporters as well as Thai, which is another country that has historically invaded Cambodia even taking over the Angkor Wat area for some time) Having your economy more or less run by an ethnic minority, usually doesn’t sit well with many people. If you haven’t read Amy Chua’s World on Fire I highly recommend it, because she makes an argument about how some strife in countries is caused by ethnic minorities running the economy (plus some other conditions as well such as a sudden move to democracy and free markets). It is very plausible that Cambodians are jealous that much of the money being made in their country is going into the pockets of Vietnamese, and futhermore this money is then being taken out of the country!

    This post may be my first controversial one, but I really am curious to know the reason behind the Cambodian aversion to Vietnamese, especially since the Vietnamese seem oblivious to it. If anyone else out there has any theories, please feel free to share! I’m all ears and want to know the truth! Let the comments begin…Cheers.”

    • Dermot Sheehan Reply

      I don’t see the point in posting long blog pieces from tourists who obviously listened to too much Tuk-Tuk gossip while they were here. A link would suffice. If any ethnic minority dominates the Cambodian economy, it is the Chinese/ Sino/Khmers, who have been here a lot longer than the Vietnamese.

  5. IndoorLoco Reply

    Vietnamese people constituted Cambodia’s largest ethnic minority. Vietnamese settlement in Cambodia. Vietnamese settlers first established themselves in the Mekong Delta, which was then under Khmer rule. The large influx of Vietnamese settlers in the region allowed Vietnam to impose its cultural norms and values according to Confucian ethics at the expense of the Khmer culture in the early 18th century until the 1860s when French colonisation of Indochina.

    During the French colonial period, France staffed much of its colonial administration in Cambodia with French-speaking Catholic Vietnamese. The French also imported Vietnamese plantation workers. In the 19th century Vietnam permanently took over part of Cambodia, and, during one occupation of Phnom Penh, attempted to impose the Vietnamese language and political structures and Sinicized or Confucianized Vietnamese cultural norms and practices on the Hinduized Theravada Buddhist Khmers. Thus many Cambodian nationalists came to perceive Vietnamese as a threat not only to their political independence but also to the survival of the Khmer people and culture.

    The Vietnamese come to Cambodia for many reasons. Some have lived here for generations. During the ten year Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia from 1979 until 1989 many of the Vietnamese who had previously lived in Cambodia returned. Along with them came friends and relatives. Also, many former South Vietnamese soldiers came to Cambodia fleeing persecution from the communist government. In recent times, the number of Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia is still relatively high, and they are also the highest number of foreign visitors in Cambodia as of 2011.[5]

    Both Vietnamese and Khmer speak a Mon-Khmer language which linguistically links the 2 groups. Vietnamese in Cambodia often don’t integrate well with Khmers unlike the Chinese or Cham, this could be due to the cultural difference that both groups have. Today, due to the high unemployment rate in Vietnam, many Vietnamese come to Cambodia looking for work , looking for a better life. Due to Vietnam’s ten year occupation of Cambodia, most Cambodians harbor a deep distrust and dislike of the Vietnamese. Intermarriage is not as often with the Khmer as the Chinese settlers. While dispersed throughout the country, many Vietnamese are concentrated in the urban areas; others are involved in traditional fishing and agricultural activities where they live in floating villages on water. Vietnamese celebrate Chinese New Year during the month of February and is one of the biggest celebrations in Cambodia. They have also introduced their religion of Cao Dai which combines Mahayana, Confucian and Catholic beliefs. There are 2 built temples in Cambodia. Most Vietnamese are followers of Mahayana Buddhism unlike the Khmer who follow Theravada Buddhism. Most Vietnamese speak Vietnamese as their mother tongue and the younger kids must learn to speak Khmer to prepare themselves to enter a school.

    The current citizenship law of Cambodia makes it difficult for many of them to prove that they are citizens of Cambodia. This in turn severely limits their enjoyment of a variety of rights, and excludes them from fully participating as equal members in the political and economic life of the country. The discriminatory impact of this legislation, the loss or destruction of identity papers which occurred during the upheavals from the 1970s, and the fact that the Constitution of Cambodia only assigns the protection of human rights to citizens, leaves them particularly vulnerable.

    Some Vietnamese are probably illegal immigrants, in the sense that they settled in Cambodia after the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Because they are not ethnically ‘Khmer’, the presumption of authorities continues to be that they are probably illegal immigrants. Unless they have identity papers demonstrating their Cambodian nationality, they risk losing their land or homes that they may have occupied for decades.

    • Dermot Sheehan Reply

      Thanks for the long copy & paste from that most meticlously-researched font of knowledge, Wikipedia….

  6. Olympia Reply

    Not really sure what the point of this piece was or what insight it really adds.

    Also, the CNRP crowds were probably chanting ‘change, change, change’.

    • Peter Hogan Reply

      It’s a personal and highly subjective report, written in a fairly evocative style, of one (newish) expat’s experiences on the campaign trail.

      Some people may find it illuminating and others perhaps not…..

      • Uncle Monty Reply

        I agree it’s a well written article. It reads brilliantly It’s a great piece of writing. If the article had been less partisan, it would have been one of the best observations of the election.

  7. andy Reply

    If the thread comments get hijacked by long racist diatribes, the front page will turn into KI Media and lose a heck of a lot of traffic.

    • Peter Hogan Reply

      Don’t worry – I’m on the case already and have gagged that particular green-ink, swivel-eyed nutcase from commenting further.

  8. Nathan Reply

    All the talk of magic nymphs and Wind in Willows leads me to conclude that this article is probably not be taken seriously

    • bryan Reply

      Having read it twice, I think that not only shouldn’t it be taken seriously but large parts of it may well be fantasy

  9. A Reply

    Just a correction re. the crowd chanting:

    “Go, go, go” would be “Dah, dah, dah”
    “Change, change, change” would be “Doe, doe, doe”. Change was the word in all the rallies i saw before the elections.

  10. MrLucky Reply

    The story would have better achieved the end of swaying opinions against the CPP if the dramatic adjectives were tossed in favor of well-researched facts.

    But maybe that wasn’t the goal. Writing news stories can get pretty dry, so maybe this is just a drunk journalist just letting his Gonzo out for playtime. That would be understandable however, even when Hunter S.Thompson was chronicling the Nixon campaign trail, he spread his sardonic wit around evenly to all sides.

    In any case, this was an entertaining read until it got preachy. If the goal was to sway opinions, then presenting facts with a tone of impartiality and letting the reader decide who’s the bad guy would have been a far more persuasive tactic.

    Opinions do have a place in journalism – between quotes, right before the name of a credible source.

    • Bo Reply

      Are you taking about FOX NEWS? I don’t get it. Your example is far-fetched by looking into the report of the Nixon campaign trail and this article.

      • MrLucky Reply

        Start with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It’s an easy read that’ll put a new fold in your brain. Then try “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” You can thank me later.

  11. Jac Reply

    I have to concur with the comments regarding concerns over Rainsy and his strong opinions about the Vietnamese. I support Rainsy in his quest to change the current government, and rid the country of its existing corruption. However, it seems that Rainsy is gaining widespread support by evoking racial hatred of those of Vietnamese ethnicity – hatred that has bubbled under the surface for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It appears that he has convinced Cambodian people that this is Cambodia’s biggest problem. He knows by evoking this hatred he will gain more support and strengthen his ties with the people – united in hate. I think this technique is clever but extremely dangerous. This technique has been used by many powerful leaders of the past with dire consequences.

    Since the election, I find it interesting that Hun Sen has stayed so quiet and not directly responded to many of Rainsy’s criticisms. It seems he has chosen to disengage somewhat. I’m interested in others thoughts, is it cultural to not enter debate in this manner? Or is it that he knows he cheated and therefore is staying quiet?

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