Election Day in Cambodia

Below is a selection of images of the scenes around Stung Meanchey polling station yesterday.

Sunday morning, I followed the venerable Loun Sovath as he voted in the national elections. These stood a great chance of being historic polls — a royal pardon had recently allowed the leader of the opposition party, Sam Rainsy, to return to Cambodia to campaign —  and the mood in the streets was one of a hunger for change.

The opposition campaign was energised by youthful supporters who are using social media and the internet as an integral means of communicating, organising and now shedding light on potential election fraud. Thousands of young supporters travelled on motorbikes around Phnom Penh in the weeks and days leading up to the election, and for the first time openly talked about politics and their support for the opposition. When I arrived here four years ago, it was very difficult to have a discussion with anyone about politics, and almost impossible in public.

Amid numerous allegations of interference and foul play, from excessive voter registration in areas believed to be CNRP controlled (in some cases as much as 200%) to voters not being able to find their names on the voter lists, people began to take things into their own hands. At Stung Meanchey, and numerous other polling stations, voters filmed the ballot counting on their smartphones and tablets.

Things turned violent when military police tried to escort an NEC staff member from the polling station and the crowd refused to allow her to leave, alleging that she would not heed their complaints of irregularities. What was most troubling about these protests, and the general tone of the opposition rhetoric which has been so vehemently espoused by Sam Rainsy, is the racist xenophobia against the Vietnamese. It seems that in garnering support for his party, Rainsy has coalesced the complex social and economic maladies that affect so many of the disenfranchised urban and rural poor into an overly simplistic and dangerously racist attack on the Vietnamese. As though this foreign ‘other’ in some way embodies the social ills and even the malicious intent of the ruling elite. That anti-Vietnamese sentiment should be the main focus of the CNRP campaign is irresponsible and dangerous, this can only lead to racist violence, and in no way addresses the growing social inequalities that are the result of a corrupt and oppressive government. How can that be confused with the huge Vietnamese immigrant population that has lived peacefully in Cambodia for generations.

This tension, and this hatred towards the Vietnamese, has always been present in Cambodian society, theirs is a complex and ambiguous relationship, influenced by the role the Vietnamese played in ousting the Khmer Rouge, and the fact that they remained in the country for so many years afterwards. As someone who has worked with opposition-aligned Cambodian activists and NGO staff, I have often overheard conversations about the ‘youn’ and how they have infiltrated Cambodia and the Cambodian government. However, as a foreigner — and as someone without any in-depth knowledge of how deeply the rivalry runs (Cambodia and Vietnam have historically been enemies for centuries) — I did not wish to comment before.
The violence that was meted out to one individual yesterday after he was accused of being Vietnamese shows the inherent dangers of Rainsy’s approach. This man was almost killed, and was left with severe head injuries, after a mob set on him and tried to beat him to death. Some of the crowd came to his defence, and the monks from Stung Meanchey pagoda carried him to the safety of their pagoda and away from the mob. A case of mistaken identity, although one man who was tending to his wounds did go to the bother of checking the injured man’s wallet for his ID card. I dread to think what could of happened to the man had they found that he was Vietnamese.

Today, while failing to say anything about last night’s violence, the CNRP rejected the election results, even though they have gained more ground than any would have expected. They have also said that they want an independent investigation to be carried out into the alleged irregularities. One can but wonder what the results would have been had there been no such tampering, while an attitude of apathy among CPP supporters might account for the much lower-than-expected voter turnout.

According to Transparency International, which estimated that roughly 48.5% of Cambodia’s 9m eligible voters voted for the CPP, and 44.4% for the CNRP, “the results that we are announcing do not necessarily reflect the will of Cambodian voters”.

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