Cambodia’s farce election
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Cambodia’s farce election

A dictator – and a distant whiff of Tiananmen Square, writes Asia Sentinel’s James Pringle

The huge streams of young Cambodian aged 18 to 20, as they move through the streets of Phnom Penh in the evening on motorbikes, carrying the rising sun flag of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), put one in mind of the students in the days running up to June 4, 1989, the infamous Tiananmen “incident” in Beijing.

There is the same naive enthusiasm of political neophytes, the burning desire for change, indeed the word “change” – “doh” in Khmer – is their rallying cry. They have the same carefree lack of fear of the forces of overwhelming power ranged against them. In China’s case it was the People’s Liberation Army, the so-called army of the people, and here it is the military forces of Hun Sen, not least the prime minister’s special 10,000 “bodyguards” with their heavy weapons, and Chinese military helicopters.

As Mao Zedong said: “Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.” Hun Sen proved that in 1997 when he ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, winner of the first United Nations-supervised election of 1993, in a bloody putsch in which pulling tongues out of mouths with pliers was applied as one singular torture mode I learned about at the time.

Ranariddh at least had weapons and experienced generals, and managed to hop a plane out. Nowadays the forces arrayed against Hun Sen’s warriors don’t have the military strength of a popgun, and no one with a military background. The only thing they may not lack is courage or numbers.

Hun Sen should have been forewarned. A million people had greeted King Norodom Sihanouk’s corpse as it was returned last October from Beijing. They were angry.

As the opposition led by Sam Rainsy, who returned from self-exile last Friday having received a royal pardon, to be greeted by crowds of at the very least 100,000, had is bid to campaign in the election rejected, one is struck by the similarities of the forces ranged against him with those at Tiananmen.

Sick as people are of the recent deadly assault on Cambodia’s forests, especially in very recent times, as I witnessed two months ago in the burned-out but still smoking remains of them in eastern Mondulkiri province, and talked to a frightened old lady whose house was destroyed, the land-grabbing of an elite few of the plots of the country and even city folk, and the 99 year leases awarded to Vietnamese companies growing rubber and sugar, Russian oligarchs and Chinese and South Korean entrepreneurs.

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