The atmosphere in Cambodia has been growing more tense over the past few weeks as the calendar slowly heads towards national elections. Although Cambodian politics barely causes a blip on the global radar, it can have deep consequences for the millions of Cambodians living here and abroad. I want to take time to explain at least a piece of Cambodian politics, to help you understand what Cambodians have faced in the past and why this is such a crucial time for the country. One book that focuses on the political history of Cambodia post-1979 genocide is Cambodia's Curse, by Joel Brinkley. It gives a much more in-depth history of all the political players. Another source for current news in Cambodia is the Phnom Penh Post, available online.
I want to be careful in talking about politics here. Although I have my own personal opinions about the government and opposition parties, I also know how easy it is for an outsider to cast judgements on the politics of a developing nation. I was struck by the difference between politics and freedom of the press when we visited America last year during the pinnacle of our presidential election. I was a bit shocked at the vitriol expressed by many on television and in print towards opposing parties - not necessarily shocked by what they said, as much as the fact they could even say it in public without serious consequences to their freedom and safety. That kind of freedom of speech doesn't exist in dozens of developing nations worldwide.
Cambodian's government functions as a constitutional monarchy - there is a king, King Norodom Sihamoni, who has been on the throne since 2004. The prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in that position since 1985 - nearly 30 years. Despite a coup in 1997 and attempted opposition from other parties, Hun Sen has had firm control of the government for the lifespan of the majority of the Cambodian population (70% of Cambodians are under age 35). National elections are held every 5 years for seats in parliament, and the ruling party, ever since the constitution was established in 1993, has been the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which in turn nominates the prime minister. Now in his 60's, Hun Sen has famously declared that he will stay in power til he is 74 years old - an interesting claim in the face of an apparently democratic election process.
The only strong voice of opposition to the CPP has been Sam Rainsy. He led various opposition parties until 2009, when he left Cambodia for France to avoid imprisonment. Warrants were issued for his arrest after he accused the CPP and another party of corruption and other unethical practices. Since then, he has been in self-exile, speaking to the Cambodian people via radio broadcasts and speeches. But in the past few weeks, the tide changed for Rainsy. At the request of Hun Sen, King Sihamoni pardoned Rainsy of the charges, and today, Rainsy flew into Phnom Penh, driving along streets so crowded with thousands of people that others arriving at the airport were forced to travel on foot into the city.