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US election a hit in Phnom Penh

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Phnom Penh expats watch US President Barack Obama make his acceptance speech on a TV screen at Score Bar, Nov. 7, 2012. Photograph: Stuart White/Phnom Penh Post

Though it wasn’t as jubilant as Chicago’s, or as glum as Boston’s, the mood among spectators in Phnom Penh as the votes were tallied in yesterday’s US presidential election was certainly energetic.

While the incumbent, President Barack Obama, ultimately sealed the deal by a substantial margin, the customary hours-long media build-up to the announcement had expats biting their nails.

“It was terrifying,” 29-year-old Taryn Schwilling, a poet and Fullbright scholar in Cambodia, said shortly after CNN called the election in Obama’s favour.

Schwilling missed the announcement of Obama’s win, but nonetheless, she said, beer in hand at a Democrats Abroad viewing held at Meta House, “I’m happy... So, it’s celebratory drinking, not drown-your-sorrows drinking”.

Business consultant Sophy Pich, a Cambodian who moved to the US as a refugee and was later granted American citizenship, said that he, too, voted for Obama.

“He’s good for the country, and he’s good for the rest of the world,” he said by phone, noting that the president doesn’t treat issues as a matter of black and white.

“There’s a way of twisting arms,” he added, speaking on the subject of diplomacy. “You have to shake the hand first.”

At an event it hosted yesterday morning, the US Embassy, not content to simply wait for the results from America, staged its own mock election.

An emcee earned a wave of laughter as she presented two stand-ins – each bearing a passing resemblance to Obama and Romney – while announcing the results of the mock vote. Obama won, with 80 per cent.

“We’ll talk about your post later,” a victorious “Obama” joked as he shook hands with US Ambassador William Todd.

For the rest of the morning, embassy staffers, activists and invited guests milled around talking politics, albeit diplomatically.

“The embassy holds this event every year to show our host country 230-some years of democracy at work,” said embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh. “Not just Cambodia, but any maturing democracy can take away lessons from this.”

When asked who he had voted for, however, McIntosh declined to say, noting with a chuckle that he wouldn’t disclose his choice “even if I wasn’t a diplomat”.

Others at the embassy were more forthcoming. Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak, who attended the event, said he was rooting for Obama, who he characterised as “a bit more honest and open”.

“You can have a very tough, hard-fought election and still be civil about things,” he said of American elections, noting that Cambodia would do well to pay attention.

“The debate, for example, two candidates go at each other, sometimes harshly, but at the end of the day, they can shake hands, and they won’t persecute each other.”

Attendee Rameth Choeng, on the other hand, said he had cast his mock election vote for Mitt Romney, “for real change”.

“He’s a great businessman and his party usually always helps other countries that upset their own people,” said the 27-year-old Sam Rainsy Party youth activist, who wore an “I Voted” sticker on one side of his chest, and a Republican elephant pin on the other. “From my country, I see that Obama is just only speaking, not fighting... for [freedom of] expression.”

Unlike that at the more subdued embassy function, the atmosphere at the Democrats Abroad Cambodia viewing party was ecstatic.

Group chair Britt Farbo said that Obama’s victory had earned American expatriates at least one important thing: “acknowledgement”.

“Obama grew up as an expat; his mum was an expat. Acknowledgement means you have clout,” she said.

Romney’s American fans, however, seemed to keep a somewhat lower profile than their Democratic counterparts yesterday, but one supporter at Meta House – who good-naturedly noted that she “came to the wrong party” – said she wasn’t totally unhappy with the results.

“I think [Romney’s] a little more pragmatic in his policies, but I’m not upset,” said the voter, who declined to be named.

“If America wanted Obama to win, that’s okay.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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