Cambodia opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned of violence if fraud taints the outcome of next month’s election, as he uses Facebook in a bid to rally supporters from his self-imposed exile in France.
“If the popular will is again betrayed, then the popular discontent will express itself through different means, and this could be violence,” Sam Rainsy, 64, a former finance minister, said by phone yesterday from Singapore during a trip through the region. “Anything can happen, and that’s why it’s important to ensure democratic elections in order to avoid violence.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, 60, is seeking to extend a nearly three-decade hold on power in a July 28 election against opponents led by Sam Rainsy, who fled Cambodia in 2009 to avoid a jail sentence he says was politically motivated. The two main opposition parties holding about one quarter of the seats in Parliament united last year to contest as the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Hun Sen has overseen more than a decade of political stability that has attracted investments from Chevron Corp. (CVX:US) and Japan’s Minebea Co. (6479), after violence marred elections in the 1990s as the country transitioned from two decades of civil war. His Cambodian People’s Party won 90 of 123 seats in an election in 2008 that was described by the U.S. as an “improvement” over previous votes despite some flaws.
Sam Rainsy is banned from running as a candidate in July’s poll even as the opposition continues to seek his reinstatement. “This is not a judicial problem, this is a political problem,” he said of his jail sentence on charges of disinformation and falsifying maps.
“Since 1993 to now we’ve seen a pattern of decreased violence because the voters and politicians are more mature,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. “However, we are still concerned. The opposition is more organized than before. It will be a big challenge for us to transfer power without any violence.”
Hun Sen served with the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and then became a leader in the campaign to oust the regime responsible for about 1.7 million deaths. He has predicted a landslide win, saying in a speech on June 1 there’s “no doubt” he’ll return as prime minister for another five-year term, Xinhua news reported. Credible opinion polls are lacking in the country of 15 million people, about half of whom are under 25 years of age.
A majority canvassed by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute in a survey published last month said they were better off than in 2008. The poll of 2,000 people conducted Jan. 12 to Feb. 2 had a margin of error of 2.2 percent.
The survey found that 79 percent of respondents thought the country was heading in the right direction, up from 77 percent in February 2008, because more roads and schools were built. The 21 percent who said the country was heading in the wrong direction cited corruption, illegal immigration and nepotism as reasons, according to the poll.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said Sam Rainsy aimed to stir unrest because he lacked popular support.
“Sam Rainsy never respects the rule of law or the will of the people,” Phay Siphan said by phone from Phnom Penh. “He’s trying to manipulate the result ahead of the election and put the blame on the election committee.”
While observers criticized the National Election Committee during the 2008 vote, election-day irregularities “were low in number and did not appear to affect the outcome or distort the will of the electorate,” the State Department said last year in its annual human rights report.
Cambodia’s economy, the third-smallest in Southeast Asia, grew 7.2 percent last year on higher consumption and investment, the Asian Development Bank said in an April report. Gross domestic product is forecast to expand at the same pace this year and 7.5 percent in 2014 as the U.S. and Europe buy more Cambodia-made garments and footwear, the report said.
At the same time, disputes over worker rights, the environment and land clearing have become more prevalent. Land disputes and forced evictions “continue unabated” and have led to clashes, the United Nations human rights office said in a report last year. Many activists and journalists who defend human rights fear for their lives, it said.
The opposition has proposed more than doubling the minimum monthly wage to $150 for factory workers. Cambodian police arrested seven workers calling for higher wages at a supplier to Nike Inc. (NKE:US) after June 3 clashes at the plant in Kampong Speu, near Phnom Penh, the Associated Press reported June 3.
Sam Rainsy said civil servants, factory workers and farmers who have had land seized by the government are bolstering the opposition’s numbers. His party plans to deploy workers at polling stations on election day to call in vote tallies as ballots are counted and post results live on Facebook.
“Facebook is changing the environment, and it is much more favorable for those who count on transparency to win,” Sam Rainsy said. “The democratic force has never been this strong. If they cheat the way they did in the past, there will be a very strong protest with far-reaching implications.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com