March 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Son Chhay’s hopes for Cambodia

By Daniel Otis

Co-operation or coup?

A few days before last July’s Cambodian general election, Son Chhay, a veteran member of parliament and a one-time refugee in Australia, greeted me at the headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Phnom Penh. A bullet had pierced one of the building’s windows in the early hours of the previous day, yet Son seemed unperturbed. “The government is trying to scare people into voting for them,” he said. “As for me, I’ve been threatened so often that I’m no longer afraid.”

Outside, a group of flag-waving youths prepared to canvass the city on motorbikes as a loudspeaker on the roof of an old Toyota blared the party’s war cry: “Change or no change?”

For 35 years, Cambodia’s political landscape has been dominated by what is now known as the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Formed by a group of defectors from the ruling Khmer Rouge, the party was installed in power after the Vietnamese army ousted Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in 1979. When Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia a decade later, the CPP and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, remained. The one-eyed former guerrilla is now, at 61, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government.

But the July election rattled Hun Sen’s reign, and confirmed that Son’s party had transformed from a group of sidelined agitators into a powerful opposition front. According to the official count, the CNRP won 55 seats in Cambodia’s 123-seat National Assembly, while the CPP’s share shrank from 90 to 68. As allegations of electoral fraud spread, Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s mercurial leader, declared that his party would boycott parliament until the government agreed to a recount, an independent investigation or a new election. The CPP refused, and negotiations between the two parties broke down in September.

The CNRP has harnessed strong youth and union support, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have participated in demonstrations. The CPP, in turn, has responded with crackdowns that have claimed at least six lives. On 4 January, it prohibited public gatherings – a ban that has since been flouted by both sides.

“Hun Sen has lost his mind and Rainsy is just fooling around,” Son says, later in January, when I visit his modest home in one of Phnom Penh’s quieter districts. The day before, his entourage was targeted with bottles and rocks by a CPP-organised counter-demonstration. “We might have the support of the people, but Hun Sen has the army. Rainsy wants to overthrow him, but it’s not possible – not yet. Our political situation is becoming a personal game between the two leaders, and neither of them will be able to make the country a better place unless they start co-operating.”

“Hun Sen has lost his mind and Rainsy is just fooling around,” Son says.

Son’s airy house is ringed by palms and fruit trees. A framed photograph of his wife and children – all of whom live in Australia – graces an otherwise bare wall in a room decorated with Buddhist antiques.

Born in 1956, during Cambodia’s “golden age” before the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War, Son was 19 when the Khmer Rouge seized power. Forced from work camp to work camp, he scavenged in forests and rice fields for fruit, vegetables and snails – anything to supplement his family’s meagre supplies. Son’s father, a brother and a pregnant sister were among the approximately 2 million people who lost their lives in the Khmer Rouge’s brutal attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

When communist Vietnam invaded, Son fled to Thailand with his four youngest siblings. He was lucky; his command of English ensured only a short stay in the border camps, and by July 1980 the family had been resettled in Adelaide. Son – then 24 and caring for siblings aged 8, 10, 13 and 15 – was given a job translating for the department of immigration. Meanwhile, he studied to become a teacher and started an organisation to help other war-scarred Cambodian refugees adjust to life down under. By the mid 1980s, he was teaching maths and science in Adelaide and regional South Australia while a fierce civil war raged in Cambodia. Son got married, had three children, and was eventually able to sponsor his mother and remaining siblings to immigrate.

When a United Nations–sponsored peace agreement in 1991 opened Cambodia to international aid, Son and his wife went to help train teachers as part of an Australian-funded project. Until then, Son tells me, he’d suffered a recurring nightmare of being chased by the Khmer Rouge, an endless race from death. Once back in Cambodia, however, he found that the nightmares stopped. In 1993, Son seized an opportunity to run in the country’s first proper election, earning a seat for a small opposition party in his native Siem Reap province.

The FUNCINPEC royalist party won that election, but Hun Sen managed to secure a position as “second prime minister”. In 1997, he staged a swift coup d’état, justifying a series of arrests and extrajudicial killings with claims that FUNCINPEC was in cahoots with the Khmer Rouge. With the royalists crushed, Hun Sen routed the remnants of Pol Pot’s long-toppled regime. An era of relative peace and prosperity followed, albeit one plagued by widespread inequality and human rights abuses.

“We’ve always been governed by individuals who centralise power in their own hands. But as soon as they go, the country goes with them.”

“If you look at Cambodian history, we’ve always been governed by individuals who centralise power in their own hands,” says Son. “But as soon as they go, the country goes with them. While in Australia, I learned that to maintain peace and stability, and to provide satisfaction to its citizens, a country needs good institutions as well as checks and balances on power. For the past 20 years, my mission has been to introduce such a system in Cambodia.”

Son won his fifth consecutive term in July. He is now the CNRP’s party whip, but admits that he’s often at odds with his vainglorious leader. “I’ve told Rainsy that working with Hun Sen does not mean that we’re bowing our heads to the devil,” he says. “We need to change the system so no one person will ever be able to destroy Cambodia again.”

Although the United States and the European Union have encouraged the CPP to investigate electoral fraud, there is little real international pressure. The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, offered his congratulations to Hun Sen in an October letter. “Australian diplomacy is all about making sure that business goes on as usual,” says Son, who was awarded the Order of Australia in 2010. Undaunted, he continues to push for peaceful negotiations to end his country’s political deadlock.

“We need to be giving Hun Sen an opportunity to help us reform the country,” Son says. “If he does, despite everything that’s happened in the past, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest leaders in Cambodian history – people have short memories. He and his family will be able to keep all the money that they have stolen from the Cambodian people, and they’ll be able to do so peacefully and proudly. Or he can continue like before until the people revolt.”

Daniel Otis

Daniel Otis is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh.

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