The Myth of Progress

While many might feel that the real myth around here is the progress that we have made in actually finishing this film, it is, after many years, now finally nearing completion. We are still short of the funding that we need to finish, but we have started the editing process and it is going extremely well.  We will keep everyone informed of our progress, mythical and otherwise.


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.”

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”.

Sam Rainsy Returns to Cambodia

The arrival yesterday of Sam Rainsy marks a shift in the political landscape of Cambodia. Rainsy is the leader of the opposition and had been living for almost four years in self imposed exile in France after being sentenced to more than 11 years in a case that many believe was politically motivated. On the evening of the death of Hun Sen’s father, Rainsy was granted a royal pardon, opening up to him once again the doors of Cambodia, and the opportunity to come face to face with his political rival, Hun Sen.
There were an estimated 100,000 people lining the streets from the airport and in freedom park. Mostly young, urban supporters full of energy and filming everything with their smart phones, tablets and even laptops.
This new generation of internet savvy and politically aware young people are using social media, and overwhelmingly Facebook as a means to spread and share information, now when there is a protest in Phnom Penh it is liked and shared thousands of times. It is not yet clear what the significance of this these new voters is for the elections, or for the political climate of Cambodia generally, and it is not really clear how deep this seemingly new political awareness actually goes within those who are sharing and spreading the information; outrage and gossip also travel far on Facebook. However looking at the faces of the young supporters who lined the streets on the 7km walk back from the airport to Freedom Park, it was clear that this was genuine feeling on display, as echoes of the new slogan ‘Change’ rang out through the city.

Boeung Kak visit the new Phnom Penh Governor

Boeung Kak and Borei Keila residents gathered in front of the Phnom Penh Municipality to ask for a resolution to the on going land dispute in Boeung Kak. Protesters also used the occasion to protest the imprisonment of fellow community member Yorm Bopha, who was arrested and imprisoned in early Sept 2012.
At around 2pm protesters blocked the traffic along the main road in front of the Municipality, shortly after mixed police forces in riot gear forced them to move.

Villagers from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila gather in front of City Hall to ask the new Phnom Penh governor to resolve the on going land dispute in Boeung Kak. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 01 July 2013 © Nicolas Axelrod 2013

Villagers from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila gather in front of City Hall to ask the new Phnom Penh governor to resolve the on going land dispute in Boeung Kak. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 01 July 2013 © Nicolas Axelrod 2013

Riot police move in to dispearse Boeung Kak and Borei Keila villagers who had blocked off the road in front of City Hall. Villagers had gathered to ask the new Phnom Penh governor to resolve the on going land dispute in Boeung Kak. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 01 July 2013 © Nicolas Axelrod 2013

Mixed Police attempt to move Boeung Kak and Borei Keila villagers who had blocked off the road in front of City Hall. Villagers had gathered to ask the new Phnom Penh governor to resolve the on going land dispute in Boeung Kak. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 01 July 2013 © Nicolas Axelrod 2013

Tep Vanny and a small group of villagers from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila face off with riot police as they attempt to move them from the road. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 01 July 2013 © Nicolas Axelrod 2013