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Cambodian opposition cries foul, storms out of debate

Katherine Visconti
America has threatened to reduce its aid to Cambodia if the election is not fair, but the country is already more reliant on money flowing in from China

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD? Political debates are not frequent in Cambodia, which has been led by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for decades. The Sunday, July 14 debate in Kandal shown above was designed to provide a level playing field for candidates of all parties but was dominated by the ruling CPP. All photos by Visconti.

KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia – The Cambodian opposition party stormed out of a debate in Kandal province and accused the ruling party of foul play, just two weeks ahead of what is expected to be a compromised national election.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) tightly controls local television and radio. The debate, hosted by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and local NGO the Indradevi Association (IDA), offered the major parties an equal platform to address the public.

But opposition party candidate Ou Chanrith never took the stage.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, claimed supporters wearing their logo, a bright sun, were decoys planted by the ruling party. The party stormed off before the second round of debates started the morning of Sunday, July 14. Supporters on Chanrith’s Facebook page called it a “bad trick by CPP.”

The ruling party has been accused of harassing the opposition in the run-up to the election on July 28. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused acting opposition leader Kem Sokha of having sex with with a 15-year-old-girl. And a committee made up entirely of CPP members expelled all 28 opposition members from parliament just last month.

Election issues have strained relations with the United States, a longtime Philippine ally that has pivoted its foreign policy towards Asia. The US has strived to strengthen partnerships in the region to counteract the influence of China, but Cambodia is squarely in Beijing’s camp.

America has threatened to reduce its aid to Cambodia if the election is not fair, but the country is already more reliant on money flowing in from China. According to the Cambodian Investment Board, China is Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor, pouring in 24% of overall investments from abroad.  

The alliance has ramifications on maritime disputes in South East Asia. Not surprisingly, Cambodia backs China’s sea interests at the expense of the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s.

Key battleground

Commenting on the ruse at the debate (through a translator), Dy Ratha, the Executive Director of Indradevi Association, said in Khmer, “It was premeditated by the ruling party. They wanted to exert influence on the opposition party. The ruling party wanted to make sure they drowned out the opposition’s voice.”

A CPP candidate who participated in the debate shot down the claims, saying, “We conduct our campaign, they conduct their campaign. It’s in a free and fair manner. This is what (the) election’s all about.”

Kandal Province, where the debate took place, is an important battleground for both parties. It is the home of Prime Minster Hun Sen. It holds 11 of the 123 seats that are up for grabs in the National Assembly. And it contains many garment factories that help power the economy.

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION. Participants, many of whom were driven in on buses by the ruling party, sat in the sun for hours to listen to the political debates.

Signs of a compromised election

The political playing field in Cambodia is perceived to be unfair.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has already ruled for 28 years, is virtually assured to win in the July 28 polls. 

Inaccurate voters lists, muzzled media and intimidation of the opposition have all cropped up as problems during the campaign season.

Thousands of people are expected to show up at the polls but will be unable to vote, NDI’s Director of Electoral Programs Patrick Merloe told a House of Representatives committee on July 9. His organization found that 8% of eligible citizens who reported voting in the last National Assembly were no longer on the voter registration list.

NDI also discovered that one in 10 names on the list are likely ghost voters, those who are dead or don’t exist. “Such a high number of potential “ghost” voters on the list presents an opportunity for fraud on election day,” said Merloe.

The government banned foreign media from airing on local radio, a popular source of news in Cambodia. But the Cambodian government reversed its decision after facing a wave of international criticism.

Cut in foreign aid?

Australia Network News reported that the US will not send its own election observers to give the appearance of legitimacy and is considering cuts in foreign aid.

“There is no point going to watch a game that has been fixed in advance,” self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy told Cambodia Daily in February.

Rainsy faced an 11-year jail-sentence but recently received a pardon that will allow him to reenter the country. 

He is expected to arrive on Friday, July 19, to participate in the election. He told AFP the pardon was a “small victory for democracy.” Rainsy warned that “much more remains to be done.” 

The top leadership in Cambodia is sure to remain the same, which will keep one of Asia’s longest-serving strongmen and his existing alliances right where they are. –

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