An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s victories in local elections were pre-ordained.

Hun Sen rode to power under the guns of some 200,000 Vietnamese troops who crossed the border with Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1978, captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, and stayed in Cambodia as occupiers until 1989. They installed Hun Sen as premier in 1985.

A former Khmer Rouge defector to Vietnam, Hun Sen lost the 1993-United Nations organized elections, and used threats to win the post of second-premier. In 1997, he launched a coup d’etat against the first-premier. For 27 years, since 1985, premier Hun Sen has controlled Cambodia’s administrative apparatus, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. He has become a dictator.

The “pagoda boy,” as he called himself — in reference to his childhood — learned fast. Now 59, he says he wants to stay in power for life. He promises an open investment environment to the world’s thirsty investors – 99 years leases on land concessions and availability of natural resources — backed by political stability. He plays well on the world’s appetite for democracy and elections. He allows just enough free expression as he carefully controls media outlets and public demonstrations sufficient to air some grievances. He’s quick to tell potential transgressors he will “close the door and beat the dogs.” He encourages elections, but ensures his opponents don’t win. He and his party intimidate and bribe hungry citizens for votes.

The country has experienced economic growth for the last decade; investors and tourists remark upon Cambodia’s skyscrapers, world class gambling casinos, and shopping malls. The regime siphons some $500 million of development aid yearly. Land grabbing and forced evictions allow Hun Sen and his cronies to get rich as they sell the co-opted property to investors, keeping a portion of the profit. One third of Cambodians live on 61 cents a day. Poverty has increased, particularly in rural areas. Corruption is rampant. Violations of rights are routine.

Sangkat elections

On June 3, candidates from 10 political parties competed for 11,459 council seats in Cambodia’s 1,633 local areas called Sangkat or communes (a cluster of several villages). Of the registered 9.2 million voters of Cambodia’s 14.9 million people, a little more than half went to the polls. Election monitors describe the low turnout as “very concerning.” Final results are not available until June 24, but preliminary counts give the ruling CPP an estimated 8,283 council seats and control of 1,592 communes; the largest opposition Sam Rainsy Party got 2,155 seats and control of 22 communes; the Human Rights Party, 800 seats and control of 18 communes.

It was a landslide victory. Cambodia’s national election will be held next year, in July 2013.

Cambodians in the country and abroad never doubted in the inevitable election victory of Hun Sen and the CPP, a factor that kept many away from the election booth. Trust that the electoral process will bring change has been lost.

Culture of subservience

For centuries, Cambodians lived under the culture of Korup (respect), Kowd Klach (admire and fear), which requires an absolute belief in Smoh Trang (loyalty/fidelity), Bamroeur (serve), Kapier (defend) throughout life, a deviation from which means disloyalty, hence, treason.

This culture maintains law and order and protects rulers (Sdech phaen dei, or King of the Earth) and their thrones. Despite the arrival of Buddhism, a belief system that preaches individual salvation, Khmers primary devotion was to the god kings. In such circumstances, the “good” karma of Buddhism is perverted to become not an active choice but a passive compliance with the old to avoid “bad” karma.

This culture imbued in Khmer mentality the concepts of king-subjects and lord-slaves, and built the Khmer society on class, rank, role relationships based on the superior-inferior, master-servant, patron-client, leader-follower precepts, as known today. Any regime in power — monarchical, republican, communist, authoritarian – benefits from this culture and mentality. Education is the remedy.

Change is not so simple

Before the Sangkat elections, the Phnom Penh Post (May 29) ran an article, “Chief’s order dictate vote, villagers say,” about the inhabitants in Stung Treng’s Sesan district, home to minorities such as the Kuoy, the Pnorng, the Prao, and the Lao.

In Sangkat Kbal Romeas – where 181 families live under a CPP chief who sees them as illiterates who need to be educated about elections – a Prao ethnic villager with coal black teeth told the Post: “Our chief gave us salt, sarongs and told us we have to vote for who offer happiness to us, so that we know who offer us peace – only our village chief’s party.” Her neighbor told the Post, “I have never missed an election, but when I voted I followed the commune chief . . . I ticked what he told me.”

Two days before the elections, the Post’s “Ten parties, little choice” reported on a dearth of choices for voters: The competing political parties’ platforms and policies “are almost indistinguishable”; key officials from each of the 10 parties said “in almost exactly the same way, committing to democracy, rule of law and development, with poverty a key issue to tackle.”

To be fair, SRP candidates did target specific issues of interest to voters: land, health care, employment.

The Post quoted 29-year-old Hem Nareth, a second time voter and activist from Empowering Youth organization: “No leader inspires us enough to support them, or offers a model (that is) good enough . . . that they would do a good job for us to support them.”

On June 2, Radio Free Asia offered a broadcast the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel)’s report on the killing of activists from opposition SRP, HRP, and Norodom Ranariddh parties during the 15-day campaign leading up to the election; and on at least 100 cases of irregularities, including intimidation, vote-buying, and destruction of parties’ leaflets and logos. RFA said, most reported political campaign disturbances were committed by CPP members against opposition activists.

It reported Comfrel’s warning in May that “at least” 1.5 million Cambodians would lose their right to vote due to irregularities in voter registration lists.

On election day, the government ordered five FM stations not to broadcast the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, to maintain a “quiet atmosphere” for Cambodians to vote.

On that day, the VOA’s broadcast included among other reports opposition leader Mu Sochua’s statement that she had “witnessed subtle attempts at voter intimidation … one of the factors in terms of voters not voting their conscience”; on the ruling CPP’s “long-entrenched system of patronage, which rewards its supporters while shutting out its opponents”; a statement by Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, on the CPP’s “donations” to village families who support the party; and on “the use of civil servants, police and the military to campaign on behalf of the ruling party.”

These interventions into the electoral process, rather than Hun Sen and the CPP’s popularity, helped contribute to their victory.

What’s ahead
Now that voters have cast their ballots, they want the new Sangkat councils to perform. On June 5 the VOA reported, villagers whose “day-to-day needs are the most pressing” — like those whose earthen roads have been washed away, or whose villages lack electricity — want the new councils to fix the problems. A 22-year-old voter told the VOA, “The commune council must consider this, and help the poor people.” But it’s the party that appoints provincial governors over the elected Sangkat councils.

The villagers’ commendable high expectations can be met only through action, vigilance and determination. Passivity and complacency won’t do. Citizens must believe the government they elected has the duty to serve them – a very tall order.

The original Greek word demokratia comes from demos or people, and kratia or government. It means the people govern. The Khmer word Pracheathippatei comes from prachea or people, and thippatei, or great, on high. It means the people are supreme; the elected serve.

Cambodians, like many other people, say they hate politics. Yet, politics has been practiced since human beings began living and working together. People organized and made decisions that would affect the collectivity. In the words of a professor of politics: “Between the cradle and the grave, we live our lives in the midst of politics.” It is “part and parcel of nearly all human interactions.” Politics exists everywhere.

The Merger

The Khmers say, Samakki chea kamlaing, or L’Union fait la force in French, meaning unity makes strength. But, Cambodians, especially modern democrats, are rarely united. Another Khmer saying, Koet meuy sem kou, or think first then draw, is consistently reversed by many to Kou heuy sem koet, or draw first then think. There’s a wealth of Khmer wisdom useful for Cambodians.

On May 24, before the elections, two rival royalist parties, the Norodom Ranariddh Party and the FUNCINPEC Party, announced their “royalist reintegration.” According to the May 31 Phnom Penh Post, Prince Ranariddh declared only Hun Sen could have facilitated such a merger and he effusively praised Hun Sen as a strong leader who solves problems while the opposition SRP and HRP parties “can’t help the people.”

On the other hand, the deeply divided opposition SRP and HRP parties declared, as the CPP picked up votes, that they, too, want to merge to prepare for the July 2013 parliamentary election. A meeting later this month in Manila of SRP and HRP leaders is planned. “Whatever the difficulty,” an SRP spokesman said, “this is an opportunity for us to unite, because these results (of the local election) show that non-CPP voters are waiting for us.”

While political analyst Lao Monghay sees a merger of the royalists as doing little to change Cambodia’s political landscape, Comfrel executive director Koul Panha sees an SRP-HRP merger as potentially beneficial to the democrats. Even if both still get the same number of votes of about 30 percent, by coming together they will get more parliamentary seats as one party, and would have a parliamentary bloc large enough to propose laws, constitutional amendments and even a vote to dismiss the current government.

Hun Sen said in a speech that the merger poses no threat to the CPP. Australia’s professor Carl Thayer said the merger will make no difference because “if the CPP feels threatened (in the national election), they’ll manipulate the results.”

Sam Rainsy goes for broke
Foreign Policy’s Thomas Miller’s “Betting on a Cambodian Spring,” describes Hun Sen as “shrewd and relentless” in eliminating political foes; Sam Rainsy as “going for broke . . . to bring down the Hun Sen regime.”

“If Hun Sen refuses to change the election system…,” Rainsy told Miller, the SRP “will follow a second part of its strategy.” Election first; but Hun Sen “will lose legitimacy following the next election if he does not implement those reforms. And we are in a legitimate position to revolt against him.”

Some discount Rainsy. But the unthinkable does happen in this world.

Serbian Srdja Popovic, whom Foreign Policy Magazine (March 2012) listed among the top 100 global thinkers – “something of an expert on unjust societies” and “an architect of global political change” – said: “Nobody, from the very prominent political analysts to the world’s intelligence services, could find their noses when the Arab Spring started. It is always this same old narrative: ‘It happened in Serbia by accident. It happened in Georgia by accident. It happened in Tunisia by accident. But it will never happen in Egypt.’ And this is the mantra we keep hearing – until it happens.”

Foreign Policy reported that Popovic admits his method for achieving revolutionary change is far from foolproof, but his Centre for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), founded in 2003, has trained activists free of charge about the “Serbian model of bottom-up regime change.”

The magazine summarized Popovic’s thoughts: Even if Egypt falls into theocracy, the lesson from Tahrir Square will remain the same. The next time a dictator is brought down somewhere, it’s likely to be by a ragtag bunch of nobodies with some organizational skills, not by established movements with clear hierarchies and agendas and foreign military support.

The battle against Hun Sen’s autocracy is a battle of ideas and their application. Democrats must be creative and innovative, think smart and act smart, not be driven on autopilot by raw emotion. They have a responsibility to become a credible alternative to stop Hun Sen and the CPP.

They have to be better. No Cambodian and no foreigner will take the risk to support a contender whom they see as no different from the incumbent. As they say . . . better the devil you know.

About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at



The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-017-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-06-2012