Although it received little media attention, Cambodia’s civil society has been actively campaigning and protesting for a more transparent, fair, and free democracy since the contested parliamentary elections in July. On Wednesday, October 23rd, the 22nd anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement, between 10,000 and 20,000 Cambodians took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest the election dispute. In the weeks leading up to the election, The Economist described Prime Minister Hun Sen as extremely confident that his political party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), would easily defeat the opposition and once again take control of the parliament. Mr. Sen’s confidence is justified; he has been in power since 1985 and is the longest-serving prime minister in Asia. In the most recent election, the CPP won 90 out of the 123 seats in parliament. Nevertheless, there was increasing excitement on the ground surrounding the leading opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP’s leader at the time, Kem Sokha, actively campaigned in the countryside and visited a new province every day. Since opposition groups are denied access to the media, Sokha campaigned the old fashioned way— he spread his message through a megaphone while standing at the back of a pickup truck, and his supporters loved it.
The basis of Prime Minister Sen’s political party has always been ‘stability and roads’. To a certain extent, these two promises are effective in Cambodia. After decades of instability and violence under the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese invasion, Hun Sen’s government has successfully brought stability and peace to the country. In addition, the CPP also achieved substantial growth and developed its infrastructure. Last year, Cambodia’s GDP grew by 7% and is frequently boosted by Chinese investment. The CNRP, however, based its campaign on growing discontent with government corruption and land grabbing. Cambodia was ranked 157th out of 174 on the 2012 Perceived Corruption Index, which has the country tied with Angola and Tajikistan. Citizens are increasingly frustrated that years of growth and economic aid mostly benefited the elite and does not sufficiently reach those most in need. Furthermore, the government’s frequent abuse of land grabbing leaves many people homeless, driven out of Phnom Penh, and uncompensated by the government. Finally, many of the younger generation who were born in the early ‘90s do not remember or fear times of instability in Cambodia. Prime Minister Sen does not represent the same kind of security to the youths that are voting for the first time.
Public protest over the election began before it was even over. Voters reported arriving to cast their vote only to find that their names were not on the registry or that their vote was already cast. The final tally declared that the CPP won with 68 seats and that the CNRP managed to win 55 seats. However, the CNRP calculated that they actually won 63 seats and all 55 of its new parliament members refused to attend the first session of the new National Assembly. Mass protests took place in September as the CNRP demanded an investigation for election tampering. Those protests were scattered by use of police force that eventually left one man shot dead. After strong international pressure, the government appears to have taken a more controlled tactic with the October protests and allowed thousands to march.
My parents are currently living in Phnom Penh and proudly pointed their iPad towards the window while we Skyped, so that I could watch the endless stream of protesters walk by. The city is buzzing with excitement and rumours about the protest movement. Monks have been actively protesting despite threats of being expelled from their pagodas. Some are saying that protesters are being paid to attend. October 23rd was an especially important day for the three-day protest. Since the anniversary of Paris Peace Agreement is a national holiday in Cambodia, more people were able to attend. Different media stations reported that between 10,000 and 20,000 people walked down from Freedom Park to the U.N. Human Rights office. Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and a small group of supporters unloaded boxes of signed petitions with over two million signatures and fingerprints to deliver to the U.N. office. This petition calls for the 18 countries that signed the Paris Accords in 1991 to emphasize respect for human rights and to ensure that multiparty democracy is possible in Cambodia. It is uncertain what effect this petition will have and whether the government will make any concessions. Nonetheless, this is the first election in Cambodia’s history that has significant potential for the opposition, and it will be interesting to see how this vibrant, political atmosphere develops.