When Information Minister Khieu Kanharith presented preliminary results Sunday evening showing the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was in the lead holding the majority of the seats of parliament at 68 to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) 55, activists expressed disbelief, shock and disappointment. There were concerns about unrest and opposition leader Sam Rainsy urged voters to stay calm.
Riots had broken out earlier at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district polling station when people reported they had not been allowed to vote.
Transparency International Cambodia (TI) released a press statement by social media noting numerous voting irregularities. Voters had found their names were not on voting lists or that their name had been used already in another province. There were also reports of vehicles without identifying license plates bussing in large numbers of suspect people to vote in a number of provinces. TI noted these situations contributed to feelings of frustration among voters which led to violence at some polling stations.
Prior to elections, U.S.-based National Democratic Institute had warned that almost 11 percent of voters would not be able to vote.
Despite these challenges, election observers had reported after the tally of votes in their districts via social media that the CNRP appeared to have a strong lead. Social media has had a great impact on the election campaign for the opposition party that has seen it as a necessary mode communication given the ruling party controls or owns the majority of Khmer language media outlets. Trust for this form of news is much higher than “official” Khmer media outlets.
Public support for the opposition has been high. Previously exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy drew record crowds in Phnom Penh estimated to be 100,000 or more when he returned to the country July 19 after an official pardon from the King for charges of removing border posts by Vietnam.
However, though the platform of the opposition is pro-human rights, it is not friendly to the beleaguered Vietnamese minority that has been living in Cambodia for generations. Investors in Vietnam, as well as China, have been linked to the spate of evictions that have left 20 percent of Cambodians without land.
As the election results have been called into question, ethnic Vietnamese Cambodian’s safety has also been a concern among some activists. Eventually media reports linked the riots in Stung Meanchey to claims that a Vietnamese man had tried to vote.
Bill Herod, a retired NGO worker living in Mondulkiri province in the north eastern part of the country, said that despite the allegations that large numbers of Vietnamese had been brought in by the CPP to slant the vote in their favor, he saw no evidence of this. “To actually influence the election result would require a truly massive number of people voting in districts all over the country. Mondulkiri borders Vietnam. We [saw] no unusual traffic flow here,” he said.
“The opposition always point out that there are ‘Vietnamese sounding names’ on the voter registration lists. Of course there are. There are tens of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia and many are citizens. Some Cambodians don’t think ethnic Vietnamese who live here permanently should have citizenship rights,” explained Herod.
While Herod did not doubt that CPP corruption influenced the election outcome somewhat, he felt the issue of Vietnamese voters was exaggerated. “It troubles me greatly to see the opposition go off on these anti-Vietnamese tangents rather than stay focused on the real issues surrounding us here.”
Mistrust of the Vietnamese in Cambodia has historical roots in the previous war. While Vietnam’s invasion of the country in 1979 ended the Khmer Rouge starvation camps, the foreign government also occupied Cambodia until 1989. During UNTAC-sponsored elections in 1993, Vietnamese living in the country were targeted for ethnic cleansing. Foreign media had reported 20,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese refugees fled to Vietnam during elections. Of the estimated 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia at the time, Hanoi had considered half to be ‘Cambodian’ as they had lived there for generations, prior to Vietnam’s occupation. Presently, this group has an estimated 100,000 still residing in Cambodia, many of whom are considered “stateless” as they are not recognized by either Vietnam’s or Cambodia’s government.
The opposition has rejected the results and has asked for an inter-committee composed of representatives from human rights NGOs, the U.N., the CPP, CNRP and NEC to resolve the issue of irregularities. While the focus of human rights groups is on the voting irregularities, Herod hopes for a change of tack from the opposition.
“If the CNRP vote really does represent anti-Vietnamese sentiment to any great degree that is not only sad but very dangerous. We have seen mob violence against Vietnamese residents in Cambodia before. In any case, the Vietnamese are not the problem,” he said.
The opposition has the attention of large group of disenfranchised supporters and a complex set of issues to focus on in the coming days. The great outpouring of enthusiasm from Cambodia’s youth has been heartening to civil society representatives who have never before witnessed the massive and peaceful collective action. Putting aside anti-Vietnamese rhetoric would show a real change for the country.