Cambodia’s parliamentary elections were supposed to be another boring and tainted exercise to ensure that the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, already in office for 28 years, remained in power for another five years.
Instead, the flagrant vote rigging failed, and the opposition may even have won. Officially, Hun Sen’s party won 68 of the 123 seats with 55 seats for the opposition, led by Sam Rainsy. The government refuses to allow an independent investigation, prompting the opposition to boycott parliament.
To some, this looks like another election crisis with Hun Sen remaining in power. But this may not be the end of the story as an awakened citizenry refuses to play along. Integrated with the world, many Cambodians have become too aware and too sophisticated to accept the rule of a corrupt elite that relies on force and openly steals the fortunes of the country while trampling on individual rights.
The last reasonably democratic election was in 1993, held under the auspices of the United Nations. The party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh won, with Hun Sen’s party coming in second. Unhinged by defeat, Hun Sen’s allies threatened a military coup. UN representatives gave in and forced Ranariddh into a power-sharing agreement, an example that set the tone for Hun Sen’s violent bullying since. Over the years, foreign election monitors couldn’t stop the vote rigging. Direct foreign investment grew into the hundreds of millions, most from China and South Korea. To protect those investments, the outside economic forces generally support the status quo.
Cambodians have multiple ties to the world that have helped open space to demonstrate a broader vision. Especially powerful have been the softest of soft powers – the renaissance of dance, the lumbering example of a war crimes tribunal and even the luxury of dual citizenship. Few of these would be considered in the traditional category of foreign strategies for helping countries create “building blocks for free and fair elections.”
Culture, always Cambodia’s strong suit, has been an impetus behind changed attitudes. Foreigners fall in love with Cambodia for its dancing, music, architecture and artisanship, and that relationship becomes a strong link to the rest of the world. After decades of war and genocidal revolution, the arts have taken on a greater role, helping Cambodians face a hideous past of the Khmer Rouge and recover pride in their own traditions. Along the way, this new cultural confidence has allowed them to cast a critical eye on the authoritarian Hun Sen regime.
Outside ties have been essential in this cultural renaissance, culminating this year in New York City’s “Season of Cambodia.” During April and May, more than 100 Cambodian artists showcased their country’s arts in performances and exhibits around the city: dance, painting, sculpture, music, puppetry, photography and films. Also in May, Rithy Panh, Cambodia’s master filmmaker, won the coveted “un certain regard” award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Last year Cambodian tourism broke all previous records earning US$2,210 million with 3.6 million visitors. Tourism even bested Cambodia’s combined exports of US$1.43 billion, largely textiles. Fueling both sectors was foreign direct investment of US$1.6 billion. The top foreign investors were Asian: South Korea, China, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Cambodia’s growth rate has remained high at 10 percent over the last five years. The beneficiaries of that growth have largely been Cambodia’s business elites with strong, often family ties to top government officials who write contracts and create economic opportunities and economic zones. Most have been in power with Hun Sen for a quarter of a century. Many officials as well as the business elite have become millionaires while the country’s per capita income is still US$909. That inequity is no longer a secret with access to reports and documents, underscored during the election campaign.
Cambodia’s human rights advocates have been at the center of calls for honest elections. They received protection two years ago from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who successfully protested the government’s attempt to pass a law that would have blocked nongovernmental organizations. Without Clinton’s intervention, those NGOs might well have been mute in the election. Instead, they were raucous. One standout campaign video featured trucks transporting huge loads of illegally cut timber under the corrupt protection of the government, narrated by the hypnotic music of a Cambodian rap singer. Young Cambodians were fully engaged.
Dual citizenship allowed by the country also helps. Some of today’s bravest advocates of open society, honest government and elections are Cambodians who carry foreign and Cambodian passports providing them with some extra protections that locals lack.
Another indirect influence could be the much-maligned Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh. Created by the United Nations in partnership with a reluctant Cambodian government, the court has been hearing the case against Khmer Rouge leaders for more than six years. For all its lumbering proceedings, the tribunal has demonstrated that justice, however delayed, is possible in Cambodia. In a country with corrupt courts that accept stacks of cash to render favored verdicts, this is no small matter.
Most importantly for this election, the tribunal helped the country understand that the Khmer Rouge period is over. In his previous campaigns, Hun Sen frightened the population by claiming that without him the Khmer Rouge would return, bringing chaos and civil war. That didn’t work this time. Others in the opposition also tried to drag up old prejudices, blaming Cambodia’s problems on its old rival, neighboring Vietnam. That racism also didn’t work.
Sam Rainsy and his party are using nonviolent tactics to force an investigation into the election. They hold rallies and peace strikes. Demonstrators are invited to bring picnic dinners, and at one event, the organizers showed the film Gandhi to illustrate the power of nonviolence. Hundreds of saffron-robed monks appealed to King Norodom Sihamoni to delay the opening of parliament. A royal prince, cousin to the king, fasted to support the investigation into the elections. In another sign of integration, the opposition boasts influential women leaders.
In the face of this disciplined nonviolence, Hun Sen reverted to form. The government deployed heavily armed soldiers and one incident resulted in wounding several and killing one young man. And while the king convened the two parties for a settlement, he attended the opening of parliament despite the boycott.
The ballet of dueling press conferences has begun. But the playbook has changed. Cambodians are far less likely to accept Hun Sen's promises and say so in social media. Foreign partners are watching, worried about their investments. Cambodian human rights groups have appealed to foreign governments and the United Nations to demand the Hun Sen government resist using "violence, threats and intimidation."
If Hun Sen attempts to keep parliament in session without reaching a compromise with opposition members, it may not only hurt his political fortunes but Cambodia’s economic and social stability.
(Elizabeth Becker is a former New York Times correspondent and senior foreign editor at National Public Radio. Her most recent book is Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, published by Simon and Schuster. Reprinted with permission from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization)