By Michelle Tolson
Sam Rainsy, exiled president of the opposition party in Cambodia, made international waves when he announced his intention to return to the country prior to the July 28 parliamentary elections. He has been told by the government that he faces arrest and imprisonment if he returns.
Underscoring the growing dissatisfaction evidenced by protests against the government, Rainsy wrote last weekend via social media: “In this context, and because Cambodia is at a turning point where it is imperative to consolidate the hopes of the Cambodian people and to reinforce the democratic process, I have decided, by my own volition and fully aware of the personal risks that I will run, to return before Voting Day.”
This announcement, made July 5 from France, coincided with the anniversary of 1997 “coup d’etat” between the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and then-opposition royalist party FUNCINPEC. The violent bloodbath resulted in at least 41 deaths and “dozens missing” from mostly the opposition party in a clash that Human Rights Watch wrote was orchestrated by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Now, 16 years later, the new opposition threat is Rainsy, who left the country under charges activists say are politically-motivated. The party’s merger with the Human Rights Party increased the opposition’s presence in Parliament from 24 seats to 27 as they jointly formed the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The ruling party, which dominates parliament at 90 seats, voted to strip them of their places in June alleging they had been “vacated” their seats by leaving their former parties. This was followed by a string of allegations against Kem Sokha, former head of the HRP and Vice President and “acting president” of the CNRP in lieu of exiled leader Rainsy.
(READ MORE: Observers and grassroots groups gear up for Cambodia elections)
The ruling party’s action, seen as a ploy by civil society representatives to weaken the CNRP, seemed to backfire. Sam Rainsy’s popularity shot up, which was clearly visible on social media and at opposition rallies covered by foreign media. He now has nearly double the social media supporters of Hun Sen.
“Many young people are on Facebook,” said Srun Srorn, civil society election observer for CAM ASEAN Youth’s Advocacy group. According to technology reports, an estimated 1,100 Cambodians join facebook everyday, aided by affordable mobile phones with internet access.
“Young people can talk to each other face to face easier about politics compared to our parents.”
The lingering memory of the Khmer Rouge years has acted as a suppressant to activism in a country where everyone age 40 and over lived through a brutal civil war. But a new day seems to be dawning for Cambodia’s grassroots activism.
A Sam Rainsy party spokesperson speaking to Asian Correspondent from the U.S. confirmed that they also make use of mobile phones, SMS, Skype, email, and leased broadcast time in some provinces’ private radio stations, and online radio.
Media outlets are largely owned by the CPP, according to Freedom House, making foreign and social media the only outlets for news of the opposition party’s activities.
As the official election campaign launched June 27, the authorities attempted to block foreign media, saying that it interfered with the election process. “They stopped VOA, RFA and international media from being broadcast,” said Srun. Yet the push-back from this action was stronger than the party expected. “It lasted just one day and a half.”
“I do understand that the Government is aware of it. They tested us twice in [the last] few months.” He credits the youth of Cambodia for driving the change.
Srun said election observers think that the government should allow Sam Rainsy to return to avoid violence. “We observers found that the biggest unfair part of the election would be if Sam Rainsy is arrested as he is the leader of the Party. How fair would the election look when the leader is arrested?”
This situation points to a looming crisis. “If Sam Rainsy is arrested, those supporters will be angry and angrier. And the anger will destroy a fair election. The power of social media will create much mental violence and then lead to physical violence. The CPP and CNRP supporters will become angry with each other too. Violence will not happen in the big town or city, but in rural areas.”
This build up of frustration has propelled Sam Rainsy to challenge the imprisonment charges levied by the government. “My return will serve as an opportunity for democracy to develop and will remind everyone concerned, Cambodians and friends of Cambodia alike, of their obligations,” said Rainsy in a social media statement.
The Sam Rainsy Party has been working with the United Nations (UN) and foreign governments to increase international support.
A spokesperson for the Sam Rainsy Party in Montreal Canada said a congressional hearing had been organized with great effort by party supporters, which took place Tuesday, July 9 in Washington, D.C.
During the congressional hearing, subcommittee Chairman Chabot suggested cutting U.S. foreign aid as a sanction against the Hun Sen government in the event that elections did not prove to be “free and fair.”
(READ MORE: Pressure grows for US to cut aid to Cambodia)
The U.S. has earmarked US$73 million for the next fiscal year toward Cambodia. While a large amount, Foreign Direct Investment surpassed foreign aid within the past few years, with China being the largest investor. The congressional hearing discussed China’s growing influence over Cambodia, which has contributed to a large-scale eviction crisis as families have been driven from their land by investors who do not value the democratic process. Yet observers say that the U.S. still has influence.
According to a Sam Rainsy Party spokesperson in Pennsylvania there will be a conference at the UN in NYC this Thursday, July 11 on Cambodia’s political situation.
The party spokesperson for Canada told Asian Correspondent, “We are holding mass rallies in certain cities in North America to show our deepest appreciation for the U.S. leadership role in this messy affair.”
That spokesperson went on to explain that Rainsy does not want to let down his supporters. “It’s all about the people he deeply cares and the nation he is so attached too. It is not often in one’s life that you have to respond to the need of an ultimate sacrifice, but for him the time is now to rescue Cambodia. He calls on all Cambodians to unite and support the democratic cause. Mr. Mam Sonando is now supporting the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and he is calling on his supporters to vote for number seven, CNRP.”
However, Srun believes cooperation between the parties is more important. “As a young people’s politician, human rights activist and election observer… [I think] the government and CNRP must work together to find the solutions which keeps the people first. It means strategic solutions for long term development.”