A Cautious China Endorses Cambodia Poll Result

China appeared Wednesday to endorse the Cambodian People's Party's narrow July 28 election victory, while at the same time calling for a swift resolution to the country's perilous political situation, which has raised the real possibility of violence in the streets.

Ending a situation where he had vanished from the political scene for almost three weeks and become a virtual recluse, Prime Minister Hun Sen was on hand to welcome Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after the election produced a 68-55 seat victory for the CPP, representing Hun Sen's largest fall in support since UN-supervised elections in 1993.

Diplomats said that Wang, in background talks with Hun Sen, probably warned his Cambodian ally of the dangers ahead, with an opposition rally scheduled for next Monday by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of former French banker Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy was permitted to return to Cambodia from exile just 10 days before the election, although he was not allowed to stand for office.

The Chinese, though they are close allies and backers of the seemingly endlessly-lasting Cambodian regime, usually take a pragmatic view of politics and are doubtless alive to the dangers. That's why it took almost three weeks for Wang to actually come here.

Military officials said Wednesday if violence were to occur at the forthcoming rally, fire trucks and thousands of military police and civilian police would be on hand, "and we are ready to crack down if any violence occurs."

Cambodia's long-ruling leader has spent significant time off the radar, and people wondered what he was doing. After all, the 61 year old strongman, who has been in power for 28 years, is a man who was seldom more than a day out of being the cynosure of all eyes. But he has remained a virtual recluse, surrounded by bodyguards in his mansion-like residence in downtown Phnom Penh or in his nearby prime ministerial offices.

The last time he appeared publicly had been 20 days earlier, when he told villagers that the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), if it did not take its seats in parliament, risked having these seats being given to the ruling CPP instead, a sure recipe for disaster.

CPP high-flyers say that Hun Sen, in the 'missing' period, had been preparing for his next five years managing this country of 15 million. Others close to authority said he is still mourning his late father who died just before the 28th July election. One diplomat said Hun Sen and his cohorts had probably been "tied up analyzing why they had lost favor in what has been a sea-change in Cambodian politics. It isn't difficult to find the answer to the CPP's poor showing which is basically summed up in the two words 'corruption' and 'nepotism'."

The CPP, he continued, "has got to make serious changes and bring in a completely new politics that meet the needs of the modern age and a new generation or their goose is cooked."

Hun Sen is believed to have made a tactical mistake in allowing Sam Rainsy into the country just 10 days before the elections. If he had permitted it six months ago, Sam Rainsy and his crew would by now be old hat, whereas he is seen as a much-need fresh face in national politics, along with his deputy, Kem Sokha, a human rights specialist and powerful orator. When Sam Rainsy returned last month from exile up to 120,000 greeted him at Pochentong Airport and rode on their motor bicycles behind his entourage into the city.

CPP provincial leading lights have seemingly realized that, for CPP office-holders to go into villages in the old way, distributing a box of noodles, a bag of rice, a cotton kramaa or scarf and 20,000 riel (US$5) is not enough. Even rural people want to be treated like adults, and see real and meaningful substantive change.

At the same time, the rumor mill has gone berserk. People remain nervous, while listening to tales of real or imagined political shenanigans involving the 'big men' of the ruling party, Hun Sen and his perceived adversary, minister of the interior Sar Kheng, himself also a former Khmer Rouge. But these tales are old political chestnuts by now. Still, there may be a blame game going on.

As one foreign pundit here said here, the Rescue party lost the election, but really seemed to win it by doubling its number of seats, while the CPP, the former communist party, though they allegedly won the election, has completely lost out in public opinion. The result was a tremendous psychological victory for the Rescue party which claims without government cheating it would have won the election outright.

While the CPP tried to scare people with tales of the now moribund Khmer Rouge, the young people, aged from 18 to 30, and thus voters, flocked to the rising sun banner of the Rescue party in huge demonstrations on motorbikes through the streets of Phnom Penh.

Facebook and Twitter won the day because almost everyone among the young is connected. Echoes of threats of Khmer Rouge return, though they are now moribund. But at the same time, there have been the panicky sweeps along supermarket shelves, empty ATM machines, somewhat of a run on banks, flights out of Pochentong airport booked solid, and a mood of uncertainly overall.

When I told a well-informed businessman that I did not believe there would be bloodshed in Cambodia this time around - unlike the slaughter of the ruling royalist party in 1997, he exclaimed: "You are the first person I've talked to who has not forecast mayhem and disaster." And yet, there are tangible signs the flow of bad news might be slowing. Substantial numbers of Cambodia's 600,000 textile working young women have ventured back to the factories from the native villages to which they had fled following rumors of likely bloodshed in the wake of the election.

Tanks, armored personnel carriers and mounted rocket launchers that had been driving up from the deep water port of Sihanoukville towards the capital, causing mounting alarm in Phnom Penh's rubbish strewn streets, had apparently disappeared into an army base at Kompong Speu, some 30 miles short of the capital, where they remain.

But there is concern about who might be in charge of this new military hardware consignment, whether Tea Banh himself, ruling strongman Hun Sen, or Sar Kheng, leader of the other alleged faction in the CPP.

For the moment Sam Rainsy has quieted down from his own supercharged rhetoric. Diplomats note Sam Rainsy does have a bit of a Messianic streak of the 'I want to bring my people out of the darkness into the light' type. And, like most politicians here, and elsewhere, he does retain a high opinion of himself.

But people here are thinking again, and one reason this correspondent doesn't think it likely there will be bloodshed is that the political parties, if they didn't do much else, managed to conduct the recent election without people getting killed for the first time since the United Nations-supervised elections in 1993, in which people also died in numbers.

Foreign diplomats are working overtime here to keep tempers cool; they don't want blood flowing in the street as it did in 1997 when deputy prime minister Hun Sen smashed Prince Norodom Ranarridh, senior partner in a coalition, and his royalist party with much loss of life. The Royalist party won no seats in the recent election.

Even the leading Cambodian politicians realize that blood on the streets, which would drive away the tourists that flock now in their millions to magical Angkor Wat, would be mortally damaging to the tourists in Cambodia, as they are in Egypt of the pyramids before the army took over in Cairo.

Those who think about such things here believe the future would look better if future prime ministers had only two mandates of five year terms. Hun Sen has almost three decades at the helm and said recently he looked forward to another three five year terms in power. He had forgotten that, sooner or later in politics, the worm inevitably turns.

"If there are only two terms most people would do their best for the benefit of the people, so as to be remembered with fondness," said one former non-government organization (NGO) representative.

"As long as the mandate is without limit, as it is now, then those in top positions will strive to accumulate more and more power and wealth and that is a negative for the morale of the people."

Another small smither of hope. There were no progress in negotiations last Tuesday between the two contending parties to form a commission to investigate irregularities in the elections. But Prum Sokha, who led the CPP delegation, said the fact the meeting took place at all was proof of progress in the two parties' efforts to break the current political impasse.

"The important thing is that the working groups of both parties came and met," he said.

That is true, and it sounded conciliatory.

"This place does not have a good track record," said a foreign analyst here. "It would take just one kid to throw a rock at a policeman or a member of the armed forces....and then the serious violence could start."

Despite all the roadblocks ahead here, physical or not, It does seem there is, at least, a tentative start to a more human way of tackling the political problems. Neither side wants bloodshed, but one does not know what will happen if events are allowed to spin out of control.

(James Pringle is a veteran correspondent who has covered Southeast Asia for decades)