Cambodia - a Kind of Triumph

After the humiliating loss of 22 seats by the ruling party in Cambodia's election Sunday, it seems that Cambodian politics can never be quite the same again.

The most likely outlook will be a slow but accelerating fragmentation of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), as the Cambodian people find their courage and realize, in a local variation of "the emperor has no clothes," that the party should and can be challenged.

In a way, it was a good result, 68 seats for the CCP to 55 for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) of Sam Rainsy, because it was not quite a complete knock-out for prime minister Hun Sen of the CPP, a result that probably staved off the immediate violence of which he has shown himself capable, especially in the 1997 putsch which overthrew the senior figure in the then coalition, Prince Norodom Rannaridh.

It was also an extremely good result for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) considering the dirty tricks that CNRP leader Sam Rainsy had to face, the first being that he was not allowed to stand for election after four years of self-imposed exile when he faced a long prison sentence on trumped up charges.

At the polling stations Sunday, I understood the reticence of Cambodian voters in the lines of people. It was as if they were willing me not to ask who they were voting for. A majority were probably voting for Sam Rainsy but they did not want to say so where they could be heard. One did, of course, respect their privacy. The regime considered the CNRP a non-party which got no television time, and was never mentioned in official circles.

After 28 years of Hun Sen's bombast and bullying, the Cambodian people have had enough after previous elections in which they voted CPP because Hun Sen had warned them unsubtly that any vote that brought to power another party would mean a new war. Hun Sen had not been shy about warning this time that the same thing would happen if the CPP lost.

But the time of the CPP, the original communist party, is nearly over. A political party composed at the center by ageing men who were formerly in the murderous Khmer Rouge, in whatever capacity, has no place in the modern world. Added to which the CPP leaders and supporters seemed to suffering from a kind of fatigue, an ennui, that rendered them ill-equipped to fight the election. Their supporters were either cowed into voting in the villages, or were families of true believers, They admitted being given perks to attend rallies in Phnom Penh.

Cambodians have been ruled for a generation by a small elite that has existed solely to preserve itself in power since 1985. Many of them were likely to have been killers during Pol Pot's rule, which ended in January, 1979, with an invasion by the Vietnamese army which came to save Cambodians, but tried to stay too long.

They live on the fat of the land and drive the country's biggest sports utility vehicles, an important status symbol here, but they are no longer up to the job. Number three in the Hun Sen ruling triumvirate of former Khmer Rouge is Heng Samrin, who just turned 80, while another member of that triumvirate, Chea Sim, is so ill he has to be carried on a kitchen chair when attending a meeting or celebration of some communist anniversary or another.

Sam Rainsy says that, under Hun Sen, "Cambodians live as if permanently stranded at the bottom of a well."

For their part, the Sam Rainsy "revolution" was carried out by thousands of young adults in the 18-30 age group that has shown that it wants change and it will not be intimidated, as were their parents (and grandparents in the Killing Fields).

There may soon be a challenge from within the ruling party to Hun Sen, who has enjoyed three decades of untrammeled power because now he has lost his charisma. Sar Kheng, minister of the interior, is the one most likely to make the challenge and, although he is another former Khmer Rouge, is is allegedly less extreme than most. Still, most people feel the time of being ruled by Khmer Rouge holdovers, who were the pre-Vietnamese faction, and not the pro-Chinese faction of the Khmer rouge which is still under trial at a tribunal here, should have been over long ago.

Hun Sen, 61, is part of that Khmer Rouge faction though he has never been suspected of crimes against humanity while in the maquis, though no-one is sure about numbers of journalists, trade unionists, human rights activists and wildlife defenders who have died in murky situations since.

"With this result, the CPP has been kicked in the head and told to reform," said one foreign analyst here. "I think we will start to find that the kind of inane violence that Hun Sen represents has had its day. Bribery and intimidation will no longer do the trick, and he will lose all authority."

His party's loss of 22 seats will be a humiliation to Hun Sen, however, Either he will lash out, or become maudlin and depressed, as is his wont.

Originally he said he would rule until he was 90, but later said he would fight and win three more elections, which come every five years, and retire in his seventies. He will be out of politics long before that, if the electorate has any say.

And his three sons, who are each being groomed for authority, one a military graduate at West Point, are also unlikely to attain the positions Hun Sen seeks for them, including succeeding him. Still, some analysts here say that it is thanks to these sons, and their overseas education, that there has been so little violence in this election. "It seems the sons didn't want to be associated with anything that would lead to people being killed, and that Hun Sen listened to them," noted a human rights lawyer here.

It's also humiliating that the ruling CCP lost four provinces won by the Rescue Party in the election. These included Kompong Cham, Hen Sen's native province, and all are especially important to the CCP leadership - the others being Prey Veng, Kandal and Phnom Penh itself.

Even a CPP lawmaker, Chean Vun, admitted that the party would "need to make some reforms, review and work harder" in the wake of the major setback.

The victors in this election will be the thousands of young people, aged 18-30, whose hundreds long cavalcades of motorbikes through Phnom Penh showed they were, for the first time, a generation of people who did not fear the powers-that-be. Sam Rainsy says this new generation is aspirational and much harder to control than any previous generation. There is no way that Hun Sen or anyone who might replace him will be able to keep this youth revolution in check in the long term.

They are part of the generation of social media like Facebook and Twitter, and this is where many people keep up to date on the latest in Cambodia, such as the present crisis.

Hun Sen will also have to stop bullying the royal family, King Norodom Sihamoni and his mother, Queen Monineath, widow of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who brought Cambodia peaceably to independence from France in 1953, and was revered by most Cambodians at least in later years.

His rule ended in 1970 with a coup against him. His rule in the sixties is regarded as the Golden Age here. A million people lined the road from the airport when his body was brought home after he died in Beijing last October. Hun Sen seemed shocked at the love there was for the king, which differed from their attitudes to him.

Hun Sen seems to think, in the eyes of observers here, that he is in charge of palace affairs now, a usurper in the royal palace.

Incidentally, the controversy over the election ink being ineffective and washing out after four hours so that people can vote again seems hardly valid.

I asked the lady with a pot of dye at a polling station if it was possible to test it. She told me to put my forefinger in the ink bottle as the voters did. I said I didn't want to look as if I had voted illegally, though an unlikely event for a Caucasian, so I stuck in my fourth finger.

More than 24 hours later, despite several robust hand scrubbings, the mauve dye is still stubbornly in place.

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy says he rejects Hun Sen's claim of victory in Sunday's election over "widespread irregularities." It remains to be seen how it is all resolved in the short term.