Cambodian Opposition uses Tuk-Tuks on Final Day of Campaign
On Friday morning, more than 100,000 Cambodians streamed into the streets of their capital Phnom Penh to show their support for Prime Minister Hun Sen in the lead up to Sunday’s general election.
At the same time, 100-odd supporters of the small and obscure Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) gathered at their headquarters in the city’s dusty backstreets. On the final day of the campaign, they squeezed into 12 tuk-tuks – motorised three-wheel rickshaws – and rode around town distributing pamphlets and how-to-vote cards.
In any normal election, a vote for a party as small and new as the GDP would be seen as a throwaway vote and its tuk-tuk train a novelty.
But this will be no normal election.
The main opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, has been disbanded by the courts, while its leader Kem Sohka has been charged with treason and imprisoned without trial.
There are 19 other parties scheduled to appear on the ballot, but they are all mostly small and new parties that cannot mount a serious challenge. And with the exception of the GDP, they are all aligned to the incumbent, the Cambodian People’s Party.
The GDP’s activities have thus far been tolerated by the regime, but no one in the party knows how far they can push things, which makes campaigning risky.
“It is dangerous,” said Kom Savang of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, an NGO that has monitored every election in Cambodia since 2009 but has decided to sit this one out because of police intimidation.
The GDP is very careful about who they allow into their compound. Two years ago, the party’s leader, Kem Ley, was shot dead at a gas station in Phnom Penh after he called for the Prime Minister to be investigated after it was reported his family had accumulated at least $200 million in wealth. Later, a man who said Kem Lay owed him money admitted to the murder. But Kem Ley’s widow Bou Rachana who fled Cambodia and now lives in Australia says her late husband was the victim of a political assassination. More recently, GDP activists distributing pamphlets in the Cambodian city of Battambang were threatened, while GDP banners across the country were vandalised this week.
“Hun Sen said no one will remove him from power but himself, so we how can we trust anyone?” explained the party member who vented my credentials. “We think the government has infiltrated NGOs and media organisations with foreign spies. How else can they know everything we do?”
The party member’s concerns are bonafide. Among the many foreigners registered to monitor the election in Cambodia is Romanian Anton Caragea of the World Election Monitoring Organisation.
Caragea, who is also a goodwill ambassador for tourism for Cambodia, reported that Cambodia had a “perfect electoral process” and complimented Hun Sen for strengthening democracy. But he has also heaped praise upon Nicolas Maduro, leader of the failed state of Venezuela, and deposed Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.
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Once my identity is verified, I’m allowed to walk freely through the compound to interview party members and candidates.
“No I am not worried about my security,” said Sen Raingsey, the GDP’s candidate for Phnom Penh. “The opposition leader was arrested but that won’t happen to us because we are not left nor right, we are centrists. We want to start a dialogue with the government.”
Raingsey rejected that democracy is dead in Cambodia and concerns his party is helping legitimise a sham election in which it probably won’t win a single seat.
“We have democracy in Cambodia, it’s just not very good,” he said. “That is why it is so important for us to participate in the election. We want Cambodia to be a better place. We are doing our best to promote change.”
The head of the GDP’s Election Affairs Department, Haneng Samorn, voiced similar sentiments. “It’s very important for us to participate in this election because many voters out there feel they don’t have anyone else to vote for,” he said. “Our numbers are growing every day. You never know, we could get a very strong showing.”
A sudden sway by voters towards the GDP was hard to imagine as I walked around their rubbish-strewn compound photographing the ragtag crew of young candidates and supporters. To their credit, the activists appeared completely unafraid as they loaded the 12 tuk-tuks with bundles of pamphlets and rode out of the compound.
The Cambodian government told the Phnom Penh Post an estimated 20,000 supporters of the 19 opposition parties would rally at Freedom Park on the city’s riverside on Friday – far away from the sight of its own rally. But when I arrived at Freedom Park at 10 am, there were no opposition supporters on site – only a large bus filled with supporters of Hun Sen – the same kind that were seen all over the city.
That made the GDPs tuk-tuk train the first and last opportunity for voters in Phnom Penh to interact with a genuine opposition party before they go to the polls on Sunday for a sham election only Hun Sen can win. “I will not lead the party to failure,” the Prime Minister told throngs of his supporters at the CPP’s mass rally on Friday.