Cambodia's Farce Election
The huge streams of young Cambodian aged 18 to 20, as they move through the streets of Phnom Penh in the evening on motorbikes, carrying the rising sun flag of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), put one in mind of the students in the days running up to June 4, 1989, the infamous Tiananmen "incident" in Beijing.
There is the same naive enthusiasm of political neophytes, the burning desire for change, indeed the word "change" - "doh" in Khmer - is their rallying cry. They have the same carefree lack of fear of the forces of overwhelming power ranged against them. In China's case it was the People's Liberation Army, the so-called army of the people, and here it is the military forces of Hun Sen, not least the prime minister's special 10,000 "bodyguards" with their heavy weapons, and Chinese military helicopters.
As Mao Zedong said: "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." Hun Sen proved that in 1997 when he ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, winner of the first United Nations-supervised election of 1993, in a bloody putsch in which pulling tongues out of mouths with pliers was applied as one singular torture mode I learned about at the time.
Ranariddh at least had weapons and experienced generals, and managed to hop a plane out. Nowadays the forces arrayed against Hun Sen's warriors don't have the military strength of a popgun, and no one with a military background. The only thing they may not lack is courage or numbers.
Hun Sen should have been forewarned. A million people had greeted King Norodom Sihanouk's corpse as it was returned last October from Beijing. They were angry.
As the opposition led by Sam Rainsy, who returned from self-exile last Friday having received a royal pardon, to be greeted by crowds of at the very least 100,000, begins its last-moment and somewhat quixotic campaign, one is struck by the similarities of the forces ranged against him with those at Tiananmen.
Sick as people are of the recent deadly assault on Cambodia's forests, especially in very recent times, as I witnessed two months ago in the burned-out but still smoking remains of them in eastern Mondulkiri province, and talked to a frightened old lady whose house was destroyed, the land-grabbing of an elite few of the plots of the country and even city folk, and the 99 year leases awarded to Vietnamese companies growing rubber and sugar, Russian oligarchs and Chinese and South Korean entrepreneurs.
Of course, China was ruled by old men then like Deng Xiaoping. But, wait a moment, is Cambodia not also a place where leadership is reserved for elders? Though Hun Sen is only 61, many of his cohorts are in their 70s and early 80s: the same bleary faces have been in power for around 30 years, including the other two men in his ruling triumvirate, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin, former Khmer Rouge to the roots. The former needs to be carried on ceremonial occasions on a chair, and the latter recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
China and Hun Sen's Cambodia have the same economic philosophy, an anarchic form of capitalism, and a Maoist political order learned while they were members of the Khmer Rouge. Of course, the pro-Beijing element of the Khmer Rouge have been under trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, while the former pro-Soviet, pro-Vietnamese faction - the one of the unholy trinity - has ruled Cambodia since it was put in power by the Vietnamese army during the invasion 34 years ago (which started as a movement to save starving and oppressed Khmers).
It's a farce to call the hustings here "an election," with the cards stacked so much against the opposition, despite last minute concessions by Hun Sen, when he knows he has it in the bag. US President Barack Obama last November told Hun Sen he should make sure the election was free and fair, and pushed him to improve human rights. Hun Sen shrugged it off.
After all, 89 percent of Cambodians still live in rural areas, and this is where the regime has its ruthless political machine of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and its enforcers. No wonder when Sam Rainsy and his coalition partner Kem Sokha passed through Kompong Speu yesterday there was hardly an opposition member on the streets. They were either non-existent, or tucked away safely at home so they would not be fingered by the local CPP power-holders.
When I see the young people here on their cheerful patrols through the streets, I feel hope for the future. But then, I felt that earlier in Beijing until the massacre. I was not based in China in June 1991, but caught a plane there, stopping in Hong Kong where I watched tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese in a huge street procession against the violence in Tiananmen.
When I reached the capital, with a handful of journalists on an empty plane - foreign civilians were fleeing on flights out, not in. The immigration officials - surreptitious supporters - stamped our passports anyway. On the streets were overturned buses with students and workers behind them, who avidly pored over the Hong Kong papers we brought in with news of Tiananmen and the killings.
The next day, outside the Jianguo Hotel, I had to throw myself on the ground as an undisciplined rabble of PLA soldiers started a panic and began firing in all directions, including into diplomatic flats where brave ayis (middle-aged home-help with pudding bowl style haircuts) showed their mettle by throwing themselves on top of foreign children to protect them with their bodies.
There was not a vehicle on the road, so I bought a battered old bicyle from a passing man in a worn Mao suit, and pedaled down to Tiananmen on which a day or two before a single man had held up a line of tanks. Later, when buses started moving across Tiananmen again, I took photos through the window of tanks in front of Mao's portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and not a soul on the bus reported me, though one woman said she was afraid the PLA would fire through the windows, a valid point that made me desist further.
If you are a journalist who has witnessed massacres, like I have in China, Angola (of Belgian men, women, children and babies) and Cambodia - I witnessed dozens of executed (by Lon Nol's army) Vietnamese floating down the Mekong past Neak Luong - in 1970, and reported it for Reuters - it's best to speak out about them from time to time to stop them happening again.
This is a cautionary tale, and I'm not saying it will happen here. But events of 1997 were not reassuring, and the same people are still in power. And if they stay in power, and try to put their offspring in power, there will be certain violence sooner or later, because people have had enough. As Information Minister Khieu Kanharith recently said, not necessarily in the same context: "This is Cambodia. Anything can happen here."
That's why I feel concerned for the young students on their motorbikes and rising star flags of the CNRP of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. One knows Hun Sen is watching them too, and Hun Sen is no doubt fretting, as he tends to do. If he feels threatened, he will move. That's certain.
Hun Sen knows he would never win a fair election. In the past few months people here have really begun to express anger about the greed of the ruling elite, their villas and Land Cruiser SUVS, their land-grabbing of lands I have seen in eastern Mondulkiri province ? it's the same in neighboring Rattanakiri - the utter destruction of the forest, wildlife and rare plants and trees.
In truth, this election to take place next Sunday should not really be held, because the cards are stacked so firmly against them by Hun Sen and his hangers-on. Even the European Union refused to send witnesses to the process this time.
But Hun Sen knows that a majority of voters in the capital oppose him, and that he will lose here. If he tries a crackdown on Sam Rainsy's supporters, he will win the first round, and probably the second round too. What happens next? Possibly the three sons he is grooming for his successor roles will have thought better of it too.
(James Pringle covered China and Cambodia for Reuters, Newsweek, the Times of London and US News and World Report.)