|Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister (C), with garment workers at a mass meeting ahead of official campaigning for the country's July 29 elections © Reuters|
Hun Sen’s regime has banned the main opposition and muted the media ahead of elections
The Financial Times | 9 July 2018
At a mass meeting attended by 27,000 workers from garment factories in Cambodia’s Kandal province last week, the country’s leader Hun Sen was handing out cash.
As a band played, the 65-year-old prime minister, who has ruled since 1985, doled out $5 per worker, and $100 for pregnant women — dozens of whom attended wearing work IDs from the area’s mostly Chinese-owned textile plants.
“If you’re having twins, just let me know and I’ll give you two envelopes of money,” Hun Sen said, as cameras streamed the event to his Facebook page. Heads turned as a woman expecting triplets ambled to the front to receive three envelopes imprinted with “a gift from Hun Sen and his wife”, prefixed by the prime minister’s lordly — and lengthy — honorific title.
Cambodia’s election campaign officially began on Saturday, with polls scheduled for July 29.
The election comes at a time of increased concern over democratic standards in south-east Asia, including in Thailand, whose ruling junta has faced criticism at home and abroad for postponing elections, and Myanmar, which has presided over alleged atrocities against its Muslim Rohingya population and a crackdown on the media. You can say anything, but don’t harass, don’t insult the government . . . the reason we are very strict is we are just out of civil war Phay Siphan, government spokesman
It will be a test of western countries’ resolve on promoting good governance abroad while they are divided by the controversial Trump presidency and the EU’s internal problems and their influence in the region is waning relative to that of China, Cambodia’s main source of foreign loans.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s party has spared nothing to ensure victory. “I don’t believe that any political party can defeat me,” he told the garment workers.
Extolling his government’s record of bringing peace to a country scarred by genocide, and clothing factories to what were once rice fields, the prime minister repeated a pledge to govern Cambodia for 10 more years if he wins.
Taking no chances after recent elections in which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party gained ground, his regime has in the past year muted independent media, outlawed the CNRP, jailed its leader Kem Sokha and dismissed more than 5,000 opposition local councillors.
The US and EU are not fielding observers for the vote because of misgivings about its integrity and democracy watchdogs have dismissed it as a farce. “The speed of the collapse of even the patina of democracy and human rights has been startling,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, adding that Cambodia was “rapidly reverting toward a one-party state”. Recommended World Hun Sen tightens grip on power as Cambodia pivots to China
The CNRP has called for a voter boycott and urged the US and EU to remove the duty-free access to their markets enjoyed by most imports from Cambodia. “The US and the EU should pressure the government and should not recognise the upcoming election,” said Mao Monyvann, a former CNRP MP.
he government’s purge of the opposition has prompted the EU to review the more than €5bn of Cambodian goods it imports duty free under the bloc’s “Everything but Arms” scheme. Until now, however, Brussels has held off on withdrawing trade preferences for fear of hurting ordinary Cambodians, including more than 800,000 who work in the $2bn a year garment industry — a swing demographic where the opposition gained support in recent elections.
At the opening of a Chinese-funded bridge this week, Hun Sen threatened to retaliate against those calling for a vote boycott, saying the authorities could find someone posting on Facebook within six minutes. Authorities have also threatened to impose steep fines on media outlets whose reports lead to “a loss of trust in the election”.
“You can say anything, but don’t harass, don’t insult the government,”
Phay Siphan, government spokesman, said, defending the government’s record on freedom of expression. “The reason we are very strict is we are just out of civil war.” Mr Phay justified the handing out of cash to voters as compensating them for their time and the expense of attending public meetings. “The opposition party used to do the same thing, but secretly,” he said.
Nineteen small parties are running against the CPP, with names like Khmer Rise, Khmer Will, and Dharmocracy. CNRP leaders have dismissed them as “firefly parties” that only appear around election time, or “ahp parties”, a reference to a mythical creature in Cambodian folklore that has a head but no body.
But defending his party’s decision to run, Yang Saing Koma, deputy president of the Grassroots Democratic party, said: “If we don’t take part in this election, what will we do — go to the forest and start a new war? Go and hold demonstrations in the US and Europe?”
With little doubt about the election outcome, observers are focusing on participation. “One thing to be looking for is voter turnout,” said Ou Virak, founder and head of the Future Forum Organisation think-tank.
“If people don’t go to vote, it means there are no options they like.”