KOMPONG CHAM (Reuters) — They may be worlds apart, but those pacing the lush green paddy fields of Cambodia and some in Washington’s corridors of power share a common concern — the southeast Asian nation’s elections next month.
Scarred by decades of war and bloody turmoil, including the genocide of the Khmer Rouge (news – web sites), elections mean only one thing for many of deeply impoverished Cambodia’s 13 million people: the possible return of strife, maybe even fighting.
A landmark U.N.-backed election in 1993 and the last general election five years later were both marred by violence, bitter disputes over the result and grave political crises.
“I am unsure what will happen,” said Kim Peing, a teacher, at a recent political rally by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). “Now it is calm, but you never know what could happen. People are scared.”
Meanwhile, for those in U.S. foreign policy circles with a keen eye on the rebuilding of “failed states,” the worry is that billions of dollars in international aid over the last decade have not created the liberal democracy they would wish.
Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Affairs Appropriations Committee and a staunch Republican, has even equated Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, to the military junta in nearby Myanmar.
Although McConnell has toned down calls for “regime change” in Myanmar and Cambodia — a stance that appalled many diplomats in Phnom Penh — Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) is due to follow up on what he has described as the Cambodian “situation” at a security summit in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
CLIMATE OF FEAR
Cambodia’s undisputed leader from 1998 onwards, Hun Sen has brought the war-ravaged country its first five straight years of peace for nearly 40 years, although critics accuse him of ruling with an iron fist.
With his main rival for the last 10 years, the royalist party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, divided and demoralized, Hun Sen’s victory on the July 27 is not in doubt, but despite this, Cambodia’s 10-year-old democracy might appear fairly healthy.
There is a vocal opposition, 23 parties are registered for the polls and the bright blue campaign signs of the three main parties adorn roadsides across the land.
But the flame of political freedom is not burning quite as brightly as many in Washington might wish.
Normally happy to talk to journalists about anything under the sun, most ordinary people — at least in Kompong Cham, Cambodia’s most populous and politically fractious province — clam up the moment politics is mentioned.
“I dared to put up the party sign, but I don’t dare talk about the elections,” said Bunna, 43, an activist for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, who would only give her first name.
In the countryside, shootings and violence — sometimes political, sometimes criminal — are common and few want to risk upsetting powerful grassroots officials, most of them part of Hun Sen’s CPP machine.
The killings this year of a senior monk, a top royalist party aide and a prominent judge have sharpened the climate of fear, even though the government has blamed the shootings on crime, not politics.
Whatever the reasons, it is all grist to the mill of the anti-Hun Sen lobby on Capitol Hill.
“Murders of political activists, widespread intimidation and selective application of justice create a climate of impunity which curtails the ability of citizens to express their views freely,” the International Republican Institute, a U.S. Republican party-funded pro-democracy body, said recently.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith rejected the criticism, saying authorities and the National Election Commission were investigating every instance of alleged political intimidation or violence.
DON’T FORGET THE KHMER ROUGE
As the currency, the riel, wobbles against the dollar and businesses temporarily scale back investment, the election campaign is shaping up to be dirtier than, if not as bloody as, previous years.
In the midst of it all, there is little space for serious debate about policies or building a better society.
“Cambodians continue to have very limited notions about what a democracy offers them and how it should function,” a study by the U.S.-funded Asia Foundation concluded. “Voters still view their vote primarily as currency for political patronage.”Top