CAMBODIA - There’s no shortage of apprehension when raising a topic that is talked about openly, freely and even mocked on popular late night talk shows without the fear of reprisal in many parts of the world.
Politics and governance, however, are no joke and not to up for open discussion here - in Cambodia, a country ruled by the world’s longest-serving prime minster, a former Khmer Rouge commander, and a man who some call a brutal dictator.
“Just talking [negatively] about him…they can throw me into a prison cell” said a Cambodian woman and friend whose trust I’ve gained over the past two years, “it’s illegal to do that here.” I can’t mention her name to protect her identity, but I can listen and observe as I try to make sense of this contentious political landscape since my arrival. “We can’t do much about it, nothing will change” she said while raising her shoulders and dropping her head in apparent defeat.
From the arrests of whoever tries to challenge him, his dissolution of the opposition party to his heavy-handed crackdown on NGOs and the media, Prime Minister Hun Sen again secured his grip over this highly vulnerable country and its people in a dubious general election held in July last year.
As Europeans and much of the world prepare to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the iconic fall of the Berlin Wall that renewed hopes of freedom and democracy worldwide, November is also being commemorated here. Raising similar hopes, but ignited by gaining Cambodian independence from France on November 9, 1953.
While I was not around to witness that historical moment in Cambodia, I do have vivid memories of November 1989, while gathered with my family around a bulky television set while living in exile, as immigrants in Canada. We felt great hope for what was to follow in our tormented homeland oppressed by Cold War communist puppets in Poland.
While we and the world celebrated one of the greatest European moments and symbols of freedom and democracy in recent history in the late 80s, there seems to be little hope for a better future here and now.
Haunted by Cambodia’s tragic history and personal experiences with the bloodshed of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 1970s, many Cambodians tell me they feel powerless and hopeless. Not the wealthy few or those in power, but the everyday citizens I have the privilege of speaking with daily.
Cambodians are among the most resilient people I have ever met. Finding peace and solitude in the most simple aspects of life, including those that most outsiders take for granted. Cambodia is considered one the most impoverished nations in the world, where the basic needs for survival such as food, shelter, education and the safety of one’s family often far exceed the risks of becoming involved with anything political.
Many feel abandoned and ignored. Over the past two years numerous people have told me that there is only one solution and conduit towards true justice and democratic freedom here.
“We can’t do this alone” said a farmer and guesthouse owner when asked about the possibility of a fair election last year. “We want to see change, and to have a real chance at democracy, but it’s impossible here. We have no power next to Hun Sen and his people. They come around and intimidate us you know, they take our lands. We need external support, from other countries - we cannot do it alone.”
It’s been nearly a year and half since since Hun Sen and his government claimed their single-party victory, and several years since Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forced to flee his native country.
Rainsy’s opposition party had gained nearly half of the popular vote before Hun Sen ordered it dissolved in 2017 and proceeded to arrest several of its members, including CNRP’s co-founder Kem Sokha for treason based on allegations to overthrow the government.
With Sokha under house arrest and Rainsy living in exile in Paris, Rainsy announced his return to Cambodia on the highly important and symbolic day, November 9th in order to “restore democracy” in his country.
"This may be the last time that you see me alive, or as a free man (...). I am prepared to sacrifice my freedom -- and even my life -- to give democracy a chance, to help ensure freedom for my unfortunate people.” Rainsy said in a video video shared on his public Facebook page a few days ago.
“His return would be very good for us, but I don’t think he’ll make it” said my neighbour.
Committing more funds and training exercises to the military forces guarding Cambodian land border check points and threatening airlines from carrying and returning the rebels, as he calls them, who threaten the stability of his government, Hun Sen has not minced his words as the big day draws closer.
“Don’t ever join the nine-fingers campaign. If you dare do it, you should have one of your remaining fingers cut off,” Radio Free Asia, one of the actively vocal and non-state news publications on the issue, quotes Hun Sen as saying to a group of students at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh last month.
Images of the “nine-finger” campaign had trickled in on social media, with people raising nine fingers as show of support for Rainsy’s return a mere few days from now.
This situation is, like most others like it, highly politically charged. With numerous players, political ambitions fuelled by the quest for power and wealth, jabs, debates and realities to consider right here in Cambodia, and with respect to the country’s relationships that reach far beyond its borders (especially and most importantly, with the US, the EU and China).
But this is where the tired and utopian side of my brain tends to occasionally take over…
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, once again, a nation, its leaders and the world actually paused to consider, first and foremost, the lives of the people many of us here have grown to love. Cambodians have lived through enough bloodshed, chaos and turmoil and yet, they continue to suffer. They deserve a renewed attempt at democracy, they deserve freedom, and an ability to live without the constant threats of intimidation and fear. The world has failed to support them during the last electoral exercise, during the ongoing illegal activities that rob underprivileged communities of their lands and their ability to speak freely.
November marks a significant anniversary celebrating the defeat of tyranny worldwide, so please, let’s not forget Cambodia. Whatever your stance on Rainsy’s return, it ought to be seen for what it represents currently - an urgent and peaceful appeal to establish, promote and foster democracy in a country where people have yet to truly experience it, fully and fairly.
If there is any peace to be had in this country, it is not with a coup, military action or violent attacks on innocent people, it begins with peaceful negotiations, preferably at a round table.