Skyscraper construction in the capital, promising oil exploration and fast-growing international tourism are starting to produce a better standard of living in a country where a third of the 14 million citizens get by on less than $1 a day.
As Cambodians head to the polls Sunday for national elections, some say the country’s economic transformation should be matched by a political one. They express a desire for a more legitimately competitive political system and a broader spectrum of political players, instead of the singular grip of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1993.
Most observers predict that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party will win big because of the party’s massive campaign push and its year-round presence in almost every village. But that doesn’t diminish the value of these elections, said Tom Andrews, senior adviser for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
“This election is an important step on the road to a truly democratic Cambodia,” said Andrews, a former congressman from Maine who has been observing Cambodia’s evolution from communism to democracy. “There are many, many steps remaining for this country before it is a fully functioning democracy, but when you look at it from a vantage point of Cambodia’s recent history in the last 10 years or so, you can see clear progress.”
Starting in 1970, Cambodia suffered five years of all-out war, then four years of murderous communist Khmer Rouge rule, then 14 years of on-and-off civil war. Finally, the factions agreed to a truce and to let the United Nations organize the first open national election.
A party representing the royal family won that race in 1993, but the Cambodian People’s Party demanded a joint leadership role for Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge officer who defected from the movement. Hun Sen then ousted the co-premier in a coup and took full control of the government in 1997.
Opponents say politics have been largely frozen since then, with Hun Sen’s party using government agencies — especially the police and courts — to maintain tight control, while fostering close alliances with China and North Korea.
Critics say the party ensures its popularity by buying votes with sarongs, rice and small sums of money. They also say the party nurtures a reputation as Cambodia’s economic savior by taking credit for infrastructure improvements, plastering the names of the party and its leaders on government projects. There are hundreds of primary and high schools named for Hun Sen throughout the countryside.
“Under the leadership of the three [party leaders], Cambodia has become a more developed country,” Sar Kheng, the deputy prime minister and minister of interior, said at a Cambodian People’s Party election rally Friday attended by about 5,000 supporters. “If you vote for CPP, you will have more roads, schools, hospitals, pagodas and everything.”
The country’s minority parties take offense at this carrot-on-a-stick tactic.
“Look, look, look! How can it be donated?” the country’s main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, asked recently, shaking his fist at a bridge plaque that read “Donated by the Royal Government of Cambodia.” “It is the job of the government to build bridges. They treat people in Cambodia like beggars. It’s a beggar mentality that they want to maintain so they can stay in power.”
Hun Sen’s party denies those allegations, saying its repeated electoral victories result from the voters’ belief in it as the only party able to safeguard the country and ensure development. “Every remote area that supports us, we also support them since long ago with safety and infrastructure,” Sar Kheng said.
That message resonates: “We left the Pol Pot regime with empty hands, and now our living condition is better than before,” said Khieu Lada, 47, a midwife. “Every year, they build us roads and schools, which shows us that they are good leaders who take care of their people.”
The economic change is palpable in Cambodia these days, especially in the capital, Phnom Penh, though many of the old French colonial buildings are still run-down, and piles of pungent trash dot the city.
Parks have become more popular since the addition of Las Vegas-style fountains and landscaping. Foreign investment, particularly from South Korea, has been pouring in. Tony high-rises, such as the 52-story International Finance Complex and the 42-floor Gold Tower 42 — two of the recent South Korean investments here — are sprouting.
Oil exploration in the Gulf of Thailand is creating hope that the country could become a resource-rich nation. So far, the quality and size of the oil fields have not been made public, nor has the potential windfall. But economists say oil could bring a significant swell in Cambodia’s gross domestic product, which was the equivalent of $8.6 billion in 2007, according to Vanndy Hem at the Asian Development Bank.
Tourism, too, continues to be a boon, as more of the world discovers the famed Angkor Wat and other temples of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia for six centuries. The number of foreigners entering the country hit 2 million in 2007, said Ho Vandy, co-chair of Cambodia’s Working Group on Tourism and head of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents. That number is likely to continue to increase, at least in part because of renovations that are to be completed next year on the cross-country train route that connects Phnom Penh to the temple region.
But some Cambodians say these changes underscore a need for greater democratic freedoms and the importance of being able to select decision-makers who will act in the country’s best interest.
“We need to be able to make a choice,” said Seb Saroth, a father of six who grows rice in Battambang province in the northwestern part of the country. On Sunday, he plans to abandon his fields to join the estimated 70 percent of the 8.1 million registered voters who will cast a ballot at one of the country’s more than 15,000 polling places. “If we have democracy, it will make Cambodia a country that can save its culture,” he said.
“Cambodia needs a democratic system with real checks and balances,” said Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. “As it is, if you have only one party with actual power, the opposition cannot play a good role, and that is bad for democracy and [the] future of Cambodia.”
Another key observer agreed: “Having multiple voices represented in the government makes a government more stable in the long run and attracts investors. I think pluralism is conducive to economic growth,” said John Willis, resident country director for the International Republican Institute. “If you have more voices feeling like they are being heard, more people have a stake in the system being maintained.”
With that in mind, Chhang Nin, a student, said he will vote for one of the 10 opposition parties. He lives in Mondulkiri, a rural northeastern province, where he attends high school and lives in a boardinghouse hours from his village.
Fresh ideas could help his country “build big buildings; and for the children, provide enough education; and for the adults, provide more factories so they can make money,” he said. But the older generations may keep this from happening, he said.
“Some of the old people, they are afraid of having another war if the CPP doesn’t win,” Chhang Nin said. “But the election is a very important way to change the country, to move forward.”