On Sunday July 28, over nine and a half million eligible voters across the nation reported to their designated polling stations to vote for Parliamentary candidates as well as the next Prime Minister. This would only be Cambodia’s fifth national election since the end of Cambodia’s civil war in 1993. I had been working on the Elections Briefing for weeks, attended various election-related events (both a town hall debate organized by the National Democratic Institute as well as a high-level meeting of various organizations working on elections-related issues hosted by the International Republican Institute), and had seen political rallies on a daily basis in Phnom Penh. All of this would come to a head that Sunday as the nation’s citizenry exercised their democratic rights to elect their leaders.
Sadly, Election Day would also be my last full day in Cambodia and would mark the end of my summer fellowship. Yet if this once-in-a-lifetime experience had to end, I would make sure that it would end in the most memorable way possible-by witnessing Cambodian democracy in action!
Amateur Election Observation 101
I had tried to register as an election monitor, but I never heard back (and neither did any of my fellow interns or their expat friends). Nevertheless, I wanted to observe the election proceedings as much as possible. I did not have the credentials of an official observer; nor did I want to mislead anyone into thinking that I was one. Therefore, my strategy was to make it readily apparent that I was simply a curious outsider and bystander. I donned a red and white krama which I wore in the style of a Middle Eastern keffiyeh, while wearing a Bangladesh cricket jersey (“Hey he’s just from Bangladesh, and their country isn’t great at democracy either!”). The goal was to make everyone view me as simply an eccentric yet harmless tourist (which to be honest, wasn’t too far off the mark).
And it worked perfectly. I visited two polling stations, an outdoor station a block away from Orussey Market, and the March 8 Kindergarten. At both stations, I got plenty of curious and bemused stares. However, as long as I didn’t enter the polling station themselves (which only official election observers could do), nobody stopped me from observing the polling grounds or taking pictures. The atmosphere in both polling stations seemed quite relaxed. Police and election officials seemed at ease, while election observers looked vigilant yet not overly alarmed. The voters themselves seemed eager to exercise their civic rights, and many brought their families with them. Students, the elderly, mothers and fathers with their kids, monks…All in all, things seemed peaceful and orderly. A good day for Cambodian democracy!...or so I thought.
The First Signs of Trouble
Then the news began to trickle in. After I returned from my amateur independent election monitoring, I began reading stories of how easily the supposededly "indelible" ink could be washed off fingers. Videos were uploaded showing alleged Vietnamese migrants attempting to vote, only to be confronted by other voters and turned away. There were stories of voters going to the polling stations, only to see that somebody had already voted under their names or that their names were not on the voting lists. Reports of intimidation by security forces, and of other irregularities also began making their rounds on the internet.
Then I received the text message of a lifetime. My supervisor Terry told me that things “might be getting interesting” in the aftermath of the elections, and strongly advised me to stay off the streets for the rest of the might. Terry, who had been in Cambodia for over 20 year and had travelled across then-Khmer Rogue controlled territory during the civil war. Terry, who had worked in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the frontier provinces of Pakistan, and Abu Sayyaf-controlled Mindanao. If she had cause for concern, then so did I.
I soon saw why . News began trickling in of the infamous Stung Menchey confrontation. Angry voters, who had stood in line for hours only to find their names were off the voter list, reportedly faced off against military police and burned two of their vehicles. I never really used Twitter except to assist with the Prey Lang twitter campaign, but that night I was glued my computer screen following every story and tweet regarding #KhElections. Users shared the latest developments and uploaded pictures, including deployments of police and gendarmerie patrolling otherwise deserted streets
Assessing the Situation
Wanting to know more about what was going on beyond the Twitterverse (which seemed mostly factual, but also had its fair share of speculation and hysteria), I headed downstairs to speak to the family who owned the hotel, of which the father was a gendarmerie officer. He was on duty that night, but I spoke to his wife and she assured me that she would inform me if she heard any news which could affect our safety. As a precautionary measure, several of the other guests and I helped her and her daughters bring in all the parked moto-bikes inside to lock them up for safekeeping. I then took a quick stroll around the street by my hotel and instantly noticed how eerily deserted and quiet it was. Groups of Tuk-tuk drivers who always park out in front of the hotel eager to solicit business were nowhere to be seen. I then noticed a few tourists wandering around looking for a tuk-tuk driver to take them for dinner. They had just arrived from England and had no idea what was going on (“Why is it so quite mate, did somebody die?), so I filled them in on the situation and instructed them to stay in their hotels for the night.
Out of Necessity, A Sense of Community
It must be said that in my 11 weeks living in Phnom Penh, I was never seriously concerned for my safety. Whether it was a quick trip to the supermarket to withdraw some cash or grabbing some dinner, I would regularly walk the streets around my neighborhood, at night and usually by myself, with no real fear of getting mugged, robbed or kidnapped. Phnom Penh, with its 2 million inhabitants, still has a remarkably “small town” feel to it which I really enjoyed.
That night, however, was completely different. Nobody around me succumbed to hysteria, but we did all have a deep sense of trepidation as to what could happen that night and in the coming days. Would the outcome of the elections be acceptable to all parties? If not, would there be civil unrest? Mass protests? A CPP-led military takeover similar to 1997? There was simply no way to know until something actually happened—and it was perhaps this sense of uncertainty and lack of control which kept all of us on edge.
However, it was also extraordinary to witness how, out of sheer necessity, relative strangers can all come together to help each other. Other hotel guests who were coming into our hotel eagerly updated us on what the situation was on the streets. Hotel owners and guests alike worked together to safeguard the hotel. I had the opportunity to help a group of tourists seek safety, while other hotels and guesthouses did what they could to assist their guests. No matter what happened that night, or the next morning, or even after I was gone—I know that our neighborhood has the capacity to take care of its residents.
Once we took steps to secure the hotel, everyone waited breathlessly in the lobby for the preliminary results to be televised.
The Results Are In…
…And boy was it a historic result, to say the least. Yes the CPP claimed a victory, but it was hardly a resounding one and nobody could claim that their political clout would ever be “same same.” The CPP had previously controlled 90 out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. This time, they were only able to secure 68 seats-far short of the 2/3 majority needed to unilaterally form a government. The CNRP’s clout, on the other hand, had skyrocketed from having 29 seats to controlling the remaining 55. No other party won any seats, including FUNCINPEC—a stunning change of fortune for a party who had won the 1993 elections.
Some analysts viewed these results as accurate, given reports that while the CNRP were overwhelming favorites in the countryside, the CPP were still able to hang on to their lead with the rural electorate (comprising 80% of the Cambodian population). They
also viewed this result as the best possible outcome, as the CNRP would be able to become a significant opposition force without having to take the reins of a government whose civil servants (not to mention the military) were overwhelmingly CPP loyalists. If that scenario were to happen, it was feared that these civil servants would do everything in their power to make the nascent CNRP government fail.
Many others, however, believed that the CNRP actually won the election. In addition to their dominance in the cities, Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and other CNRP leaders had campaigned vigorously in the countryside, with tangible results for the CNRP in capturing the rural vote. Likewise, in addition to irregularities reported throughout the voting period, they also they pointed out the fact that the preliminary results only included 6.1 million votes, when the NEC declared that over nine and a half million voters were eligible to vote. “What happened to the other 3.4 million votes?” they wondered.
The CNRP and their supporters certainly smelled blood. The CPP were far too quick with these preliminary results, they sensed, and their significant drop in seats while still allowing them to retain a slight majority seemed more like a desperate compromise rather than genuine election results.
There would be no protests that night, but we all waited to see what both parties’ reaction would be the next morning and in the days following.
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.