Phnom Penh after the elections

WARNING The slideshow contains graphic images.

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On Sunday night 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan died a few meters from where I was filming and taking pictures of violent clashes between what was ostensibly a mingled group of frustrated commuters unable to pass police blockades, CNRP supporters, local youths, and several thousand military police. The angry crowd threw rocks and debris at the police, who responded with smoke grenades, tear gas and live rounds. He died for nothing, he was not involved in the protests, and left behind his wife and four children.

I stood no more than two meters away from police and photographed them as they held their automatic rifles at waist height and fired live rounds directly into the crowds. What justifies such excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the military police? It is doubtful, given the history of Cambodian politics, that the death of  Mao Sok Chan will ever see anything that resembles an independent investigation.

And while the police are still mopping up the remnants of political dissent, Hun Sen can now turn to mopping up the opposition. A CNRP boycott of the National Assembly on the 23rd would be a risky move, yet sharing power with the CPP over the next five years could spell disaster for the opposition, whose leaders would surely be accused of betraying the supporters who have sacrificed so much to protest for change by whatever means, for their own personal gain. Power sharing within this context would mean little. The CPP can simply fabricate some new ministries for the CNRP ministers to run, adding more farce to the already bulging administration. Given that real legislative power would remain firmly within the hands of the CPP elite, the opposition would fail to deliver on any of the reformist policies that won them so much support in the first place.  If this were a game of chess, now would be the point at which the opposition lost the initiative, and five years from now there may not even be a CNRP to stand against the CPP.

Additionally both sides have resorted to using King Sihamoni as a pawn in order to try and discredit the other party in the eyes of the Cambodian people, but the fruits of such underhand tactics may amount to nothing. It is questionable to what extent Cambodian’s hold Sihamoni in the same high regard as his late father, Sihanouk, and therefore as a bargaining chip he has a limited value. After the 23rd, when the National Assembly reconvenes, Sihamoni will be once more relegated to the dusty corridors of the Royal Palace and life may seem depressingly similar to how it was before the election campaigns began.

The energised and politicised youth movement, the use of social media to disseminate (admittedly uncorroborated and potentially inciting) information, a growing disaffection with the rule of Hun Sen and the CPP and a genuine desire for change, any change among the Cambodian people might soon seem like a distant memory, and it is this possible future that brings to mind these two quotes from George Orwell’s “1984″

“Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly.” and, “Power is not a means, it is an end.”

Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future warned us against the perils of the totalitarian regimes that had almost taken over the whole of Europe during the second world war, yet his ideas resonate here in Cambodia; until very recently a de facto one-party state, in which the ruling elite use the organs of state, from military to municipality, to ‘reverse collectivise’ wealth and property, stealing from the working classes while attempting to repress the civil society and journalists who seek to shed light on their actions. Cambodia is run by a gang of thieves, intent on consolidating and defending their power at whatever cost. What is to say that a power-sharing agreement would be able to do much to change this dynamic?

This also, from Orwell.

“It had long been realised that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called ‘abolition of private property’ which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before: but with this difference, that the new owners were a group instead of a mass of individuals.”

Would Sam Rainsy and the CNRP leaders do well to join this oligarchy and turn their backs on the supporters who gave them so much momentum? It is doubtful that Kem Sokha, a staunch Human Rights advocate and ‘man of the people’, would be as comfortable as Rainsy, a Paris educated banker from an elite family, with the prospect of power-sharing, not while the spectre of a splintering opposition and more political violence still hangs in the air. Perhaps Sokha will boycott while Rainsy takes a deal?

But who will the real winners be? will it be the  people who are out on the streets? The farmers who sold their belongings to travel to Phnom Penh and protest, the monks who are defying the orders of the Buddhist Sangha and speaking out, the students, the garment factory and construction workers, everyone who is risking their lives to protest for change?

One more from Orwell, for good measure.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–for ever.”

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