Published: July 26, 2008 (The New York Times)
Trauma of Cambodia’s Past Not a Factor in Election
By SETH MYDANS
PHNOM PENH — A surge of patriotism has swept through Cambodia, bolstering the popularity of Prime Minister Hun Sen as the nation heads into a parliamentary election Sunday.
The country has rallied around its leader as its troops face off for a second week against Thai soldiers at a disputed 900-year-old temple on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Mr. Hun Sen is expected to win overwhelmingly on Sunday, extending a 23-year rule that is already the longest of any elected leader in Southeast Asia, although that victory will owe as much to other factors, reflecting the country’s move beyond the traumatized past of its Khmer Rouge years to something approaching normalcy.
Under Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, the economy has been growing in recent months, though steep inflation has brought new pain. Its political structure is more stable than ever, though it is the stability of autocratic rule.
The prime minister has mostly neutralized his opponents — by violence in the past, and by political pressure as the challenges have become less threatening.
“The country has never been so stable and it’s never had sustained economic growth like this before,” said Roderick Brazier, the country representative for the Asia Foundation.
“For a great part of the population, life is now similar to the lives of people in neighboring countries,” he said. “It feels like a normal country in that respect.”
The confrontation over the temple seems almost anachronistic as the country tries to move past its bitter history.
A few kilometers outside town, in a sort of bubble of irrelevance, five aging leaders of the Khmer Rouge are in holding cells awaiting trials that have been delayed so long that they have lost their meaning for most Cambodians.
From 1975 to 1979, the fanatically Communist Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people though torture, execution, starvation and over work, leaving behind a country psychologically paralyzed.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal has hardly been mentioned in the election campaign. Although many older Cambodians still carry with them the damage of those years, half the population of 14 million is under 20 years of age. An even higher number has no memory of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ended almost 30 years ago.
The retired king, Norodom Sihanouk, 85, who had been at the center of his country’s history since the 1950s, at least as a figurehead, has virtually disappeared from sight. His heir, King Norodom Sihamoni, has made little impression on the public.
Asked if the elder king, once a colorful and ebullient figure, had become discouraged, his biographer, Julio Jeldres, said: “Oh, I think so, I think so. But he realizes where the power lies and that there is not much he can do about it.”
The power lies with Mr. Hun Sen, 57, who has ruled Cambodia — alone or with others — since 1985. He said in May that he was tired of doling out bits of power to placate coalition partners.
“In the past there was a stalemate, so I had to facilitate this party or that party and enter into a coalition government,” he said. “Now the winner will get 100 percent. If there is an A there will be no B. If there is a B there will be no A. It is me or him.”
Eleven parties are competing for 123 places in Parliament but most of the parties are expected to win no seats at all. Hun Sen’s party will benefit from a constitutional amendment requiring only a simple majority — rather than two-thirds of the seats — to form a government. His party now holds 73 seats and expects to win still more.
Mr. Hun Sen makes no secret of his very long-term ambitions.
“If I am still alive, I will continue to stand as a candidate until I am 90,” he said in January 2007.
He is benefiting now from an economy that has been growing by about 10 percent a year, mostly based on income from garment manufacturing and tourism, as well as by a real estate boom that is bringing in foreign investors.
But that growth is fragile, some economists say. Jobs in the garment industry are moving to China. The high cost of fuel may begin to squeeze the tourism industry.
And like its neighbors, Cambodia is suffering from rising food prices and a slowing economy. Inflation, which had not passed 10 percent before this year, may be approaching 20 percent, according to some estimates.
The small middle class with money to spend in the capital’s new malls could shrink. And little of their money trickles down. Cambodia remains one of the poorest nations in the world, with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. About 35 percent of the population lives on less than 50 cents a day.
“Life is better than five years ago,” said Seng Sing Leng, 43, a pork seller in a marketplace. “But things are getting harder. Our income is higher than before, but prices are much higher too.”
Despite the squeeze, most people interviewed at the market on Friday said Mr. Hun Sen was their man.
“He’s been a good leader,” said Chory Chorn, 52, as she cracked open coconuts to sell the pulp. “He helped the poor build schools, build roads.”
A small crowd had gathered and people were unanimous when asked about the question of the day: who has the rights to the border temple.
“Cambodia!” they shouted. “Cambodia, 100 percent.”