By Eric Pape
Cambodia was once the grand international project. Before the upheavals of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, the global community launched an ambitious plan to heal a ruined country through diplomacy, development and democracy. It’s been an uneven road–littered with hundreds of bodies, questionable elections and billions of aid dollars.
The next milestone comes on July 27, the day Cambodians will take part in national polls to choose a prime minister for the third time since 1993, when the United Nations oversaw one of the biggest electoral projects in its history. Outside Cambodia, the world may be focusing on whether a war-crimes tribunal will finally bring some hint of justice for the 1.8 million victims of the Khmer Rouge nearly three decades after the regime fell, but inside the country voters have more pressing concerns: rising inflation, glaring corruption (including government-backed land seizures) and an ever-larger gap between the wealthy and the dirt-poor.
A dozen parties qualified to run parliamentary candidates, but two main contenders for the premiership stand out. The People’s Party of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen–a former communist and one-time low-level Khmer Rouge commander who remains an intimidating presence after more than two decades in power–holds 73 seats. The other is Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister who has long railed against corruption and was almost killed during a hit-squad attack during a 1997 protest. (A quick-moving bodyguard sacrificed his life by jumping in front of Rainsy; he was among the 13 confirmed dead.) Rainsy’s party, which currently holds 24 parliamentary seats, appears likely to benefit from internal divisions in the royalist FUNCINPEC party, which currently holds 26 seats and is the junior partner in the current coalition government. But given Hun Sen‘s near absolute control of Cambodian television, radio, the courts and the electoral structures that validate elections, any meaningful decline in his power would amount to a stunning blow.
NEWSWEEK’s Eric Pape spoke by cell phone with Cambodia’s opposition leader about his third run against archrival Hun Sen, the “curse” of oil discoveries and the rise of Chinese influence. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: As with the last three elections, rights groups are reporting political murders of government opponents during this campaign…
Sam Rainsy: [Last week] a journalist from the Khmer Conscience newspaper, Khim Sambo, and his 21-year-old son, were killed near the Olympic Market in Phnom Penh by a motorcycle hit squad. These are the sixth and seventh murders linked to politics in this campaign.
But [Hun Sen allies] also threaten villagers. “And if you vote for the opposition,” they are told, “there could be civil war; your homes could be destroyed.” They can lose their livelihoods, even their cows.
How is this campaign different from the last three?
There is less killing, less violence and more subtle tricks to disenfranchise. Many people’s names are not on the voter rolls. All of the government’s supporters will have the right to vote–and they have “ghost voters” to inflate those numbers–but many others will not be able to vote.
What do you expect to happen on Election Day?
The [ruling People’s Party] will organize something very exceptional; otherwise their result will be very bad. So they threaten and buy off party agents [party appointees who help monitor the election], so that they turn a blind eye to cheating. This leads to another problem: there are a few hundred international observers for 15,000 polling and ballot-counting stations; how can they guarantee a fair election?
The final results depend on the degree of manipulation. If we can prevent, resist or overcome this, we will have more votes than last time. But in the end, if they use violence, manipulation and money to buy party agents and neutralize observers, they can proclaim any result that they want.
Is your campaigning causing you trouble in Cambodian courts?
There are lawsuits accusing me of insulting the country’s leaders. I publicized a report by [environmental watchdog] Global Witness that was banned in Cambodia because it describes some leaders as “thieves.” So I said: “Our leaders are thieves, according to Global Witness.” I mentioned it, so I may be liable to five fines of up to 10 million riels [$2,410 each]. But people who steal from the country are thieves.
Hun Sen recently said that he had stopped talking to the opposition because they only insult him.
If Hun Sen doesn’t talk to the opposition, I don’t mind. As long as he doesn’t kill the opposition.
Why is Hun Sen still prime minister after a quarter century?
He is clever and very gifted. He is a survivor, but survival means there is no vision. You eliminate or weaken opponents, but he is leading the country nowhere. This can’t last forever. There is growing unemployment, accelerating inflation, ongoing land grabs, continuing poverty, the using-up of natural resources. There are economic crimes and impunity for violent crimes and assassinations. It is the rule of murderers and thieves.
How will the discovery of oil deposits affect Cambodia?
If things stay as they are, it will mean more problems and instability, more corruption and poverty. It will be a curse–unless there is more pressure for Cambodia to become a real democracy. Then these new resources could be used to develop the country and its human resources, to strengthen democracy. But if Hun Sen remains in power, we will go the way of Nigeria.
How has the international role in Cambodia evolved?
Hun Sen needs the recognition of the West, but he no longer needs its money. China brings money to Cambodia without taking an interest in human rights or democratic conditions. And it is lucrative for China here; they enjoy the natural resources. In different forms, China is probably the largest investor in Cambodia. You can see it even in education now. There are hundreds of Chinese schools, recently built, with funds from Chinese authorities. And more and more Chinese companies come in “under the table.”
The West is losing its power here. And when we get oil revenues, Western countries’ leverage will be even smaller. There are just a few more years now when Western countries can still press for change. After that, it will be impossible. So the will of the Cambodian people must be expressed properly now. If the West allows it to be distorted again, it is the worst service they could render to Cambodians.
Is it possible to have a free election in Cambodia?
No. You have to measure the degree of unfairness. The question is: how unfair and how unfree?
Can you campaign?
We don’t have access to broadcast media, and we have to rely on word of mouth, and there are dangers, but we still try.
You accuse the government of cheating in each election; why do you keep running for office?
If we persevere we will reach our goal in time. Despite the problems, our vote increases in each election. And even the most powerful dictators make mistakes. Who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and its disintegration? They were much more powerful than Cambodia’s leaders.