Cambodia’s 2013 parliamentary election campaign began in earnest on Thursday, June 27, as eight parties began their campaign rallies for 123 seats.  Almost 10,000 domestic and international election observers are monitoring the election campaign, which has proven to be contentious.

Srun Srorn, a registered civil society election observer representing Cam ASEAN Youth Advocacy group, told Asian Correspondent that though the first day “looks good,” there are not enough observers as “we need more than 18,000 but only have about 10,000” representing a reported almost 10 million registered voters.  More neutral (not tied to a particular party) observers are needed to cover all the election centers.

Hun Sen

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Pic: AP.

When asked if observers felt safe, Srun said “I feel this year is very uncomfortable.”  The month of June has featured a great deal of strife between the ruling party and the opposition.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) voted to strip all members of the opposition of their seats, removing not only their salaries but parliamentary immunity as Cambodia’s National Assembly closed its session June 5.  The opposition, a coalition between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP), merged after the 2012 commune election to consolidate power as the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and jointly held 27 seats, 24 from the SRP and three from the HRP.  While uncontested throughout 2012 until June 5th, of this year, the ruling party claimed they had “vacated” their seats in order to merge parties.

Mu Sochua, President of SRP Women’s Wing and CNRP Public Relations Executive, told the Asian Correspondent that the loss of immunity was likely a key reason behind the CPP’s move as within days a campaign began in earnest against Kem Sokha, former head of the HRP and Vice President and “acting president” of the CNRP in lieu of exiled leader and President Sam Rainsy.

The first accusation was that Sokha had said the horrors of Tuol Sleng Prison were “faked” by the Vietnamese.  The CPP presented a digital recording Sokha’s voice of as proof which instigated mass protests throughout Cambodia in response, drawing a reported 6,000 people June 9 to Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

Sochua said the recording was merely a “cut and paste” of Sokha’s words designed to smear his character and weaken the growing the strength of the opposition party.

Meanwhile, civil society representatives, who conducted their own research, disputed the reason behind the protest.  Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) said his group visited the demonstration against Sokha and learned “protestors” in a village near the capital had been promised 20,000 riel (5 USD) each for attending but said they did not get paid.  His civil society partners said protestors in Kampot were angry because they had been promised 20,000 (5 USD) each but were paid just 8,000 riel (2 USD) to come to a demonstration.

While many allegedly came for the money, others said they were told they would be able to visit Tuol Sleng Museum by attending.  “They said it was not their will to protect the CPP but rather visit the museum,” said Moeun.

Since losing his parliamentary immunity, Sokha has been hit with a number of allegations, such as attempting to purchase sex from a minor, which Premier Hun Sen ironically implicated himself as part a cover up for Sokha.  Other charges against him include denying a former mistress child support and allegedly telling his body guards to attack her.

Sochua sees these maneuvers as attempts to discredit the acting leader of the CNRP because of its recent success during rallies and on social media.

The CPP owns or operates most of the media outlets in the country, “all television and most radio stations,” according to Freedom House.  Television and radio are particularly important vehicles for information as two-thirds of the population are considered “functionally illiterate.”

Srorn said “The election process this year is not fair. Many TV and news station are CPP.  They have a huge potential to reach rural and isolated areas.  They produce lots of programs to support the one party–including drama, comedy by pop singers, and pop stars.”

The opposition has reportedly not been allowed to participate in radio programs if the ruling party is also not in attendance, while the CPP is never denied air time, according to Sochua.   However, social media has become a way around this restriction as Cambodia grows in internet penetration.  In 2011, Freedom House reported internet penetration to be just 3.1 percent but this has grown to 2.7 million out of a population of 14 million, according to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication.   An estimated 1,100 Cambodians join Facebook everyday report analysts.

Part of what has changed the balance of Cambodia’s media landscape is the popularity and affordability of mobile phones.  Cambodia has more mobile phone users than landline users, at a reported 19 million phones or 131 percent penetration, according technology analysts.  Almost 25 percent of all website traffic comes through mobile phones.

Thida Khus, Executive Director of SILAKA and Cambodia Women’s Caucus Representative, said CNRP’s growing popularity with youth has been easily observable on social media and thinks this has made the CPP take notice.  According to demographic data, youth make up 36 percent of the population.

Srun, representing youth civil society in his capacity as an election observer, said “Young people can scare the government today. They are very active on complaints and bring the real problem to the government leaders through media [such as] facebook, phone, email, Skype…”  There is an age gap between people in power and the growing activist movement in the country.  “Most of the provincial governors especially members of parliament are from age 40 up,” said Srun.

Sam Rainsy, exiled leader of the CNRP, has recently capitalized on Cambodia’s media blackout by garnering over 90,000 facebook supporters, compared to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s approximately 70,000 as the election campaign kicked off.

A party spokesperson confirmed that they also make use of mobile phones, SMS, Skype, email, and leased broadcast time in some provinces’ private radio stations, online radio, and on foot door to door.

When asked why youth in Cambodia have been so disaffected recently, Srun explained “Their parents lost all their land to land concession.  Young people in rural areas come to town to find jobs and the jobs are low paid and abuse their labor.”

Those that immigrate to other countries find they don’t have a strong support system.  Young people also feel at an educational disadvantage compared to other countries because of the “very poor education system which we cannot produce skills compared to our neighbors.”  Inflation also affects the poorest who are at a greater disadvantage and “poorer people are poorest and many of them are angry with most of the local police and investment,” said Srun.

The opposition party’s strong human rights platform and support of land and labor rights parallels the growing grassroots movement across the country.  While grassroots groups such as the Cambodian Grassroots People’s Assembly and Boeung Kak lake activists carefully claim no political affiliation in order to not be seen as “anti-government,” the strength of these movements has not been lost on the CPP.

As the election campaign begins in earnest, these grassroots groups, which mobilized during last year’s ASEAN Summit that Cambodia hosted, are also traveling to the different provinces and presenting their demands for human rights issues to be addressed, inviting all parties to focus on the issues rather than fighting against each other.