The night is eerily quiet in Phnom Penh, the incessant traffic on Norodom Boulevard but a trickle and the low-level rumble of the city stilled by the hangover of a hotly contested election.
We strain for sounds of discord – ambulances, shouting, racing engines, gun shots – but hear nothing.
I flash back to a night in 2011 when a similar pall came over Phnom Penh. It was the night of the Koh Pich stampede disaster, when more than 400 people lost their lives in a panic trying to exit from a concert during the annual Water Festival over a narrow bridge.
Then, the city seemed vacated, the beehive of motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars and SUVs transporting the wealthy absent from the streets.
There’s a pattern to this behavior, this odd quiet in a city famous for its manic flow of life.
There was Koh Pich. And there’s Pchum Ben, the annual festival of the ancestors, when Cambodians pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. And there’s Khmer New Year, when Phnom Penh empties and Cambodians flock to their home provinces to celebrate with families.
Then there was last night – at the close of an historic National Election that brought unexpected and unprecedented change to this tiny country of 14 million.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has systematically elevated himself to godlike status – bestowing title upon honor to himself as over the past 28 years he has worked to consolidate power and accumulate wealth – was given a solid vote of no confidence yesterday by an electorate for the first time empowered to embrace an opposition party.
Fueled by the emotional return of exiled leader Sam Rainsy, The Cambodia National Rescue Party steam rolled through the sultry countryside and wrested crucial Parliamentary seats from the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party.
Last night the CPP released a statement claiming victory in securing 68 seats versus the CNRP’s 55, with 10 seats undecided. The CPP previously commanded 90 seats of Parliament’s 123 seats, raising valid questions about how a loss of 22 seats could be viewed as anything but a stunning defeat.
Most anticipated yet another dominant CPP victory in yesterday’s vote. Powered by traditional support of rural voters and with a well-oiled and financially fueled political machine, the CPP was unabashed in its pre-election strategic moves.
- Responding to an out of context videotaped speech by CNRP co-leader Kem Sokha that aspects of the Khmer Rouge-era genocide may have been embellished or staged, the government fast-tracked a bill through Parliament making it a crime to question the accuracy of genocide history. The bill was passed after 29 opposition party members were expelled from Parliament, preventing them from voting on the measure and cementing a CPP-controlled majority vote.
- Voicing concerns about outsider influence and the specter of incitement, the government announced plans to block radio broadcasts from the popular Voice of Democracy and Voice of Asia programs. The decision was abruptly reversed when the international community – led by the United States – howled in protest.
- Several months ago Hun Sen denied an appeal by Rainsy for clemency from an outstanding conviction of incitement – carrying with it a 11-year jail term – so Rainsy could return to Cambodia and pay his respects to the Royal Family upon the death of King Father Sihanouk Norodom. In the latest of bizarre twists to this ongoing drama, Hun Sen processed a “request” for a Royal pardon for Rainsy which was signed by King Norodom Sihamoni on July 12. Rainsy returned to Phnom Penh on Friday, July 19, and was greeted by more than 100,000 supporters in one of the largest opposition gatherings in Cambodian history.
- Protests by villagers speaking out about displacement activities have been put down – sometimes by force – in front of City Hall, Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence and in front of the US Embassy near Wat Phnom. The government has issued statements patting itself on the back for enacting tough land rights laws while continuing the wholesale distribution of land to powerful regional business interests.
- Watchdog group National Democratic Institute issued a stern rebuke to the National Election Commission two weeks ago, having analyzed voting rolls and discovering widespread irregularities. Some of the crucial province’s voting lists equated to 120% and higher of the eligible voting base.
- In an eleventh hour move transparently orchestrated by the CPP, the National Election Commission ruled that Rainsy’s name would not be included on the ballot, claiming he had been reinstated to the race too late.
Such moves were greeted with typical Cambodian acceptance; a faint smile, raised eyebrows and a tip of the head, as if to respond to a questioner, “Well, what would you expect?”
But many prepared to respond in time – at the polls.
On the way to the airport Saturday I spoke with a flower vendor who when asked which party he would be supporting responded with a grin and flashed the number seven with both hands – the ballot position of the CNRP.
“My whole family support Mr. Sam Rainsy,” he said enthusiastically. Such outspoken support of the opposition would have been highly risky during the last national election five years ago.
“Doi kinneah pontai koh kinneah” is one of Cambodia’s more popularized cultural expressions: “Same same but different.”
But on this first day after the Rescue Party’s unquestionably historic strong showing, things are anything but same same in Phnom Penh.
The CPP bribed, cheated and stole its way to a radically diminished victory, and there is little question that heads will roll within the CPP as a result. Second chances are rare opportunities handed out by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who has little use for anything but absolute power and complete adherence to his instructions.
We stayed inside last night, reading Facebook updates and tweets that recorded the violent reactions around the country. Voters were responding angrily when they learned their names had been omitted to voting rolls, or that someone had already voted using their identity. Anti-Vietnamese sentiments rose to the surface when it was revealed that Vietnamese nationals were showing up at some polls – ostensibly at the behest of the CPP – to cast illegal votes.
Not far from our house, a military blockade shut down Sihanouk Boulevard, close to the Lucky Supermarket where we had gone to stockpile food in anticipation of the aftermath. Hun Sen’s 10,000 personal bodyguards were dispatched in force to secure one of his residences overlooking Independence Monument, a short walk from our home.
And on Monday morning Phnom Penh was still mostly a ghost town, as the city awakened to a slow drizzle and a political landscape very new to its inhabitants.
Where this country goes from here is anyone’s guess. Even for a self-deified leader like Hun Sen, who has created his power base fueled by ruthless greed, violence and by forging sound relationships with China and Vietnam, yesterday’s result must have come as a rude awakening to a man unaccustomed to such surprises.