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Richard S. Ehrlich: Cambodians Go To The Polls

Cambodians Go To The Polls

by Richard S. Ehrlich

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- In this haunted tropical land of mass graves, political intimidation and languid post-French colonial charm, people who survived Pol Pot's "killing fields" and Prime Minister Hun Sen's tough regime, hope Sunday's (July 27) election won't result in more corruption, despair and violence.

Hun Sen is widely expected to be re-elected, but no one is sure who will nab second place or if a stable coalition can emerge without bloodshed after the votes are counted.

"I don't care who wins, if it is Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy or Ranariddh, I only care that they have enough money to do something good," said a weary Cambodian businesswoman who suffered during the thousands of U.S. aerial bombing raids which began in 1969 and the 1975-79 death camps of Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge.

"At least Hun Sen has organization, he has contacts with many, many people because he has been in power a long time," she said in an interview, referring to Hun Sen's stint as foreign minister and 18 years as prime minister.

"Hun Sen and his people have money. We don't want to have a leader who has no money, who just depends on [foreign] aid and who is weak. Weak is no good," she said.

Sam Rainsy is the opposition candidate to watch.

He may beat Prince Norodom Ranarridh for second place and make life difficult for Hun Sen, according to foreign observers monitoring the election for the U.S.-based Asia Foundation and other Washington think-tanks.

People hoping for Hun Sen's downfall speculate Mr. Rainsy and Prince Ranarridh may be able to combine their parliament seats to form a majority, overcome their animosity and create a new government without him.

"Cambodian people are scared in their minds and scared when they face the world so they just want to survive and they hope, whoever wins the election, after it will be OK," a Cambodian magazine publisher explained in an interview.

"I like Sam Rainsy because he is 'democracy' and he has no military people in his party. But because of that, he may not be strong enough to provide security after the election.

"People say America will provide millions of dollars in aid if we vote for a new government without Hun Sen in it," the publisher said.

"We don't know if it is true or not. But all my neighbors are talking about it. We don't consider that as vote buying. We think, when someone gives money, it is because of kindness.

Then later, when that person asks us for something, we do it, to return the kindness. That's the way Cambodians are."

Washington and other foreign capitals hope a new government will restrict Cambodia's lawless ambiance and uproot international criminals based here who smuggle weapons, drugs and counterfeit cash while enjoying a cheap, hedonistic sanctuary.

China is interested because it supported Hun Sen with military and other aid, to project Beijing's southern regional influence.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) weilds control over the army and police -- often blamed for human rights abuses.

His control bolsters his chances at the polls because he promises security, mutes opposition and blankets the country down to village-level with a perception that his party can be all-seeing and punishing.

Critics denounce Hun Sen as a thug who allegedly ordered the murder of political opponents during his long reign.

The prime minister has consistently denied all such allegations and has never been officially charged with any wrongdoing.

During the election campaign, meanwhile, Hun Sen's two main opponents played the race card by echoing the late Pol Pot's rhetoric about vampire-like Vietnamese settlers who allegedly steal jobs, over-fish Cambodia's rivers and lake, and create other social problems.

"Cambodians don't like to live with Vietnamese because they say Vietnamese make noise and may be involved in something bad," the publisher said.

Vietnamese suffer widespread discrimination, human rights groups said, and many fear for their safety.

Mr. Rainsy frequently rails against "yuon" -- which some consider a racist term for Vietnamese, though others insist it is a traditional tag for people on the other side of Cambodia's eastern border.

By stabbing at over-populated Vietnam's alleged meddling in impoverished, vulnerable Cambodia, Mr. Rainsy also tars Hun Sen who was initially installed as foreign minister by Vietnam during Hanoi's 10-year occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s.

Mr. Rainsy meanwhile projects himself as an innocent, uncorruptable, idealistic do-gooder. Some foreign fans have even portrayed him as a male counterpart to Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr. Rainsy and Ms. Suu Kyi are both reed thin, eloquent speakers who profess non-violence, but comparisons end there.

Mr. Rainsy, a former finance minister who runs the ego-centric Sam Rainsy Party, makes endless allegations about "dictator" Hun Sen, but is often unable to display hard evidence.

Hun Sen's other main foe is Prince Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly, or Parliament, and leader of a minor coalition party -- known by the French abbreviation Funcinpec.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and the prince is the estranged son of elderly, sickly King Norodom Sihanouk.

Prince Ranariddh's power, however, has deteriorated due to defections among his supporters dismayed about his lackluster abilities.

The prince also plays the race card to smear Hun Sen.

"Today we have to stop being afraid to talk about the yuon," the prince declared at the start of his campaign.

"Funcinpec is the only party not under the control of Vietnam," the prince said.

Prince Ranariddh draws much of his money and support from "royalists" who are often perceived as opportunists exploiting Cambodia to ensure a lofty, elitist lifestyle in a land where most people are desperately poor.

Hun Sen, born in 1952, served in Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge as a regimental commander of Cambodia's Eastern Zone.

In 1977, he fled to Vietnam apparently fearing purges by Pol Pot.

He returned to Cambodia atop a Vietnamese invasion in 1978 -- which soon toppled Pol Pot -- and collaborated to allow Vietnamese troops to remain until their 1989 withdrawal.

During the Vietnamese occupation, Prince Ranariddh and his father enjoyed US cash and support in their notorious coalition with Khmer Rouge remnants, waging a shabby guerrilla war against Hun Sen and the Vietnamese.

In 1993, the United Nations staged a haphazard election which resulted in Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen sharing power as "co-prime ministers" but in 1997 their two sides battled in Phnom Penh with tanks.

As a result, Hun Sen solidified his power and forced the prince to wander as an international fugitive until his conviction for smuggling weapons and conspiring with the Khmer Rouge in the bloody 1997 street fighting against Hun Sen.

In a 1998 election, marred by violence and corruption, Hun Sen edged ahead of Prince Ranariddh while Mr. Rainsy trailed third.

In Sunday's (July 27) election, voters can chose among more than 20 parties to select a 123-seat National Assembly which then creates a new government.


- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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