Explaining Cambodian Politics

A huge CPP rally filled the main street in Poipet last month

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.

So why did Hun Sen ask for Rainsy's pardon? Possibly it was because of pressure applied by the United States and other countries to give free and fair elections. Cambodia's ability to do that was questioned after the parliament stripped 27 opposition party lawmakers of their salaries and positions due to a technicality about a month before elections, and also because of a ban that was placed on foreign radio broadcasts in the Khmer language - thought to be intended to stifle any opposition voices from overseas. The ban was soon retracted after an international uproar, but other nations (who provide a significant amount of funding to the government in form of aid) demanded better proof that elections would actually be democratic. Thus, the door opened for Rainsy's return.

So what does this mean for Cambodians now? Although Rainsy has returned to Cambodia, a majority win by the opposition is unlikely, especially considering the country's long history of voter fraud and corrupt elections. But both parties have been throwing around the term "civil war", Hun Sen even going so far as to state that if the CPP loses, the country will descend into uncontrolled violence, chaos, and war with neighboring Vietnam

The national elections are on July 28, and (lucky us) Andrew and I have to be in Phnom Penh over that weekend because of work engagements. Our Khmer friends have already warned us to stay away from Phnom Penh and to keep our passports handy in an emergency grab bag. But we don't even have our passports right now. Our Cambodian visas are expiring, and we needed to renew them before we go on home leave in America next month. So the passports are in the visa office, and we will be in Phnom Penh when the elections are held.

Why am I telling you all this? It won't have an impact on you in America (or England or Canada), but part of the value of Journey Mercies is that it gives you a way to be a part of Cambodia's story - even if just as a witness to the stories I tell. Cambodians are really nervous right now. Some think all hell will break loose; others doubt that anything will change, that the CPP will win again, and the country will continue on as it always has. Although I don't feel like my safety is at stake, I worry for the Cambodians who are risking their safety and even lives in speaking out. And if protests at election results, in either direction, were to break out, the violence could quickly escalate.

So I'm asking you all the pray for Cambodia in the next few weeks. We know that God places leaders in positions of authority (Romans 13:1). And even if those leaders are not believers and have corrupt desires, I still believe that God can use them for his purposes. Pray that the elections will be peaceful, and that people will turn to nonviolent protests. Pray that the elected leaders will have compassion on the Cambodian people and not abuse their power for their own gain. And pray that no matter the result, that believers will continue to be bold in witnessing to the power of Jesus to change lives, regardless of who rules Cambodia.
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