Sure enough, the next morning Sam Rainsy rejected the election results and declared that the CNRP would wait until the official NEC results were released. This also meant no mass protests or government crackdowns—at least for now.
Traffic seemed to return back to normal, and I went into the office after noon to say a final goodbye to all my colleagues (as well as to offload my significant stash of medicine and toiletries which were weighing down my luggage!). Many of the staff had to go back to their home provinces to vote and had not yet return, so the office was not as busy as it normally was. Everyone who was able to come to work was still gripped with election fever and seemed to be on edge as to what could happen next.
I said my final round of goodbyes to the EWMI and especially the ODC staff, and afterwards Pinkie and Jessica graciously helped me load my luggage. As I waved goodbye from the tuk-tuk which took me to the airport, it was with an extremely heavy heart that I began my journey home. Even in the best of circumstances, I would have been saddened at the end of such an amazing, life-changing summer experience. With the fallout from the election hanging heavy in the air, I left with a profound sense of trepidation for all of my co-workers and friends left in Cambodia, who have truly become like family to me. As I was travelling to the airport, I spotted several convoys of army trucks and jeeps patrolling the highway. Hopefully just standard post-election security, I kept telling myself.
American Media Fail: A mini-Rant
Quick confession: I have never really been a big fan of our country’s media. I harbored disdain for American mainstream media way before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made it cool—since sixth grade I have followed BBC World News, and after Al Jazeera’s globally lauded on-the-ground coverage of the 2008-2009 Gaza War, I have been a huge fan of the Qatari channel as well (and simply cannot WAIT until the debut of Al Jazeera America!). I have found our nation's mainstream media coverage of domestic news to be repetitive and sensationalist, and their international coverage-when they bother to cover it at all-has almost always been insufficient in airtime and superficial in context and content (with a few outstanding exceptions, of course. See: Richard Engel, Fareed Zakaria, et al.).
However, my scorn towards American media reached new heights while I was in Cambodia, where I tuned in to American media exactly twice. While Egypt-a nation of 80+ million people which serves as the beating heart of the Arab World-experienced a dramatic overturning of civilian rule and was on the brink of civil war, most American outlets were fixated on the “significance” of juror #8’s chewing of her fingernails. Not Treyvon Martin’s life, his death, or the sufferings of his family and loved ones; but endless speculation of “jury specialists" jockeying for their 15 minutes of fame.
A few weeks later, I would witness CNN spending 15 minutes speculating on the yet-unborn royal baby's full name.
If I could borrow Jon Stewart’s Camera 3 and address the American media for one second: Guys look: there was a general election in Cambodia—only the fifth election since the end of the civil war in 1993. The ruling party has openly threatened violence if they lost; just like after the 1998 elections when they actually launched a bloody coup and crackdown. There had already been some clashes in the streets, and the situation is so volatile that most embassies warned their citizens. In fact, one morning I woke up to an email from our embassy.
It is beyond frustrating to see our media so hung-up on what sells rather than genuinely informative and insightful coverage. They really ought to practice more proactive reporting (aka real journalism) and focus on emerging stories, rather than just reacting to stories after they happen. For instance, cover this election at least a little-don't just wait to see if violence actually breaks out (and in many cases, to see if a Western journalist was murdered or a hapless expat caught a stray bullet) to decide whether they will cover it at all.
I'm honestly not trying to rain on anyone's parade-The Trayvon Martin case certainly deserved proper attention, and I understand that the royal baby provided some much-needed escapism for viewers around the world from the trials and tribulations of their daily lives. However, I cannot help but feel that emerging developments in other parts of the world such as Cambodia deserve at least a tiny fraction of the coverage as such "headliners."
Fortunately, once I got back it seemed that more American media seemed to be picking up the Cambodian Elections. The New York Times lauded the historic nature of the CNRP’s win, while The Economist highlighted the CPP's and once-invincible strongman Hun Sen’s humbling vulnerabilities. In addition to analysis of the election, post-election developments began came hard and fast. The official NEC result (to nobody’s surprise), remained the same. Sam Rainsy rejected the results and called for outside investigations and demonstrations. The government promptly responded by deploying army soldiers, armored personnel carriers, tanks and rocket laucnhers, and even pre-emptively suspended military ties with the US and other nations who criticized the election results. Sam Rainsy and the CNRP responded to these developments by asking for protesters to share their water and food with the security forces (similar to the approach that protesters used in the 1986 People Power Revolution to topple Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and more recently the 2011 Egyptian revolution) and appealed to the nation’s soldiers to not turn their guns on their own people. The CPP government, in turn, has accused Sam Rainsy of inciting a military rebellion. Civil society has responded with a stunning series of prayers and rallies for a peaceful and just political solution to the crisis.
Are these military measures just more CPP scare tactics, or actual preparations for a violent crackdown? How will the CNRP, the youth, and Cambodian civil society-which has thus far committed itself to the exercise of peaceful people power-react in the event of a crackdown? Nobody can know for sure what will happen next, and this uncertainty fills me with dread every day.
Cause for Hope
However, one exchange from Election Night gives me hope. The hotel owner and gendarmerie officer returned later that night, and I was able to chat with him about the situation. He told me that he believed the Stung Menchey confrontation was actually staged by the CPP themselves, and that the few protests he saw on Election Day were all peaceful. He also claimed that there was no way he nor any of his men would use violence:
“Shoot who? My fellow Cambodians? That is craziness. These are my brothers and sisters out there; our sons and daughters. The military and police will always protect the people and will never betray their duty to the nation. There is no way I could or would ever raise my weapon against the people who are simply demanding their rights."
Citizens Demanding Rights
That is precisely who these young Cambodians in the streets are— citizens from all walks of life who are only calling for accountability in the political process; who are simply claiming their rights as citizens to have a voice in their nation’s future. When I see pictures of many of these youthful protesters (many sporting LICADHO’s now-iconic “THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING” t-shirts), I am reminded that in similar circumstances, so many of my friends and family in the US could have taken their place. And I hope that the international community will indeed be watching-and will stand ready to act- this time. I pray that should disaster strike Cambodia, they will not be so callous as they have been to the unspeakable evil being committed in Egypt, Syria, and so many other troubled nations around the world.
I hope for a peaceful, prosperous, democratic, and just Cambodia-and above all, I pray with all of my heart that all of these people (including so many of my dear friends), who are simply clamoring to exercise their democratic rights and express themselves, will remain safe and free to pursue their dreams.
Disclaimer: All views articulated in this article are entirely the writer's own and are in no way reflective of any other individuals, institutions or organizations.