Welcome to the gutter

June 19, 2013

So, election season is upon us once more in Cambodia. But this year seems of a rather different tenor to previous, post-UNTAC elections. For a start, there have been no vicious political killings (although that could obviously change).

For instance, in June 1998, in the run-up to that year’s elections, the body of a political activist called Thong Sophal was found in a ditch: his fingers and one ear were missing and the flesh on his legs had been removed with a knife, before he was killed by a heavy blow to the skull. Nonetheless, the police decided his death was suicide. It was the fourth death of an opposition political activist that month.

This year’s elections have only been marked by unverified rumours against members of the opposition. But they seem to be having an effect.

The acting president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, was accused the other day of referring to the infamous S-21 torture centre as a Vietnamese fabrication. He says the quote was taken totally out of context, and was made more than a year ago. But, lo and behold, thousands rallied in the streets against Kem Sokha. Although it turns out Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP paid for transport and produced the banners the protestors were waving.

Following this, the CPP’s permanent committee in the country’s National Assembly stripped all 28 opposition members of their parliamentary status, for merging their parties. Because the expulsion took place within six months of the elections, the seats left empty were effectively terminated until after the election.

Then the remaining 86 members of the assembly were called into an extraordinary session to pass new legislation, outlawing the denial of crimes committed under the KR regime, which was drafted and adopted within a mere two weeks of a direct call by Hun Sen for the new law. Oddly, the assembly doesn’t usually work that fast. (A not terrifically effective anti-corruption law was in the works for 16 years.)

So the new law curtails freedom of speech, and was never debated. Good stuff.

But Kem Sokha’s woes weren’t over yet. A few days later, a woman turned up at a political rally claiming to be Sokha’s estranged mistress, demanding money for child support for the couple’s two children. She also claimed that Sokha’s bodyguards had beaten up her mother. Sokha, on the other hand, claims he had never seen the woman before in his life.

And finally (and there’s still more than a month until the elections) Hun Sen told a crowd of thousands that in 2011 police informed him of a sexual encounter Sokha had recently had with a 15-year-old girl.

Hun Sen told the crowd: “That day, I got an urgent phone call to immediately arrest a lawmaker and president of an opposition party. He was taking a 15-year-old girl and had already paid $500 and was taking her to the Micasa Hotel near the riverside. I did not authorize his arrest. If I had, he might accuse us of intervening in his personal life,” the prime minister said, without explaining quite why he had allowed the alleged crime to continue without intervening.

“There is a political ploy of asking a politician to respond to a baseless rumour – and of course responding to a baseless rumour gives credence to the possibility of the rumour,” Justin di Lollo, an Australian political consultant, told the Phnom Penh Post. “In Cambodian politics, if this has never happened before, it could be a sign of desperation, or the stakes are higher. In that sense, it could be seen as a maturing of Cambodian politics. And in that case, welcome to the gutter.”

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