Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

On Sunday, Sept. 15, thousands of protestors, supporting the main opposition party in Cambodia marched through the streets of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital city, in a continued call for an investigation into the July 28 parliamentary elections, which they claim was fraught with irregularities.

The results of those elections propelled Prime Minister Hun Sen to another five-year term in office. Sen has been serving as the leader of the Cambodian government for all but five years since January 1985.  However, Prime Minister Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won just 68 seats, down from 90 in the previous parliament. It was enough for a majority in the 123-seat National Assembly.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition to Sen’s CPP, nearly doubled their size in parliament, winning 55 seats. The CNRP’s strong showing was a sign of increased frustration with the Prime Minister Sen’s rule, long perceived to be authoritarian despite strong economic results in recent years.

The CNRP, led by Sam Rainsy, disputed the validity of those results even before voting began, accusing the regime of colluding with National Election Commission in fixing the election. Among the many concerns of the opposition were that over a million voters were potentially eliminated from the polls, the hopping of voters from polling place to polling place carrying fake identity certificates, and the fact that the indelible ink marking the fingers of those who have already voted could be washed off with lime juice or bleach.

In Sunday’s demonstration, about 20,000 supporters of the opposition gathered in Freedom Park and marched through the streets despite orders from the government not to do so. The marches were largely peaceful, though a group of about 200 protestors broke away from the main rally and clashed with the police. Water cannons and smoke grenades were used by authorities to break up this group and protestors defended themselves by throwing shoes, rocks, and other small objects. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy intervened himself to stop the violent protestors and herd them back to Freedom Park.

“Their ballots were stolen, and they are asking for justice,” said Rainsy at the demonstration.

The day before the demonstration, Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen met face to face for the first time in years, at the behest of the country’s King. The 30-minute meeting was supposed to help the two sides resolve the disputes peacefully but no breakthroughs were made. The two were slated to meet once again this past Monday, on Sept. 9.

Two days before the demonstration, homemade bombs were found near the parliament building in Phnom Penh and grenades near Freedom Park, where the demonstrators gathered on Sunday. Against this backdrop of increasing tensions, many are fearful that the police could crackdown at the order of the government.

The new parliamentary session is slated to begin on Sept. 23. The King has urged all legislators to attend after the CNRP vowed to boycott the opening session. Last Friday, Sept. 13, the Constitutional Council also ruled that all allegations of fraud in the elections have been investigated and resolved. No new probes were therefore necessary.

The Sen regime has built a reputation on its no-compromise style of governance and few observers expect the Prime Minister to compromise this time.

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