Development and defence. Rights and respect. Roads and electricity. Jobs and justice. Change. Stability.
By and large, campaign rhetoric in Cambodia is much as it is anywhere – soaring speeches, with flourishes of the inspirational and aspirational, peppered with familiar promises to make voters’ lives better.
But that rhetoric has taken a dark turn in recent weeks, as the Cambodian People’s Party’s long-standing warnings of “instability” in the event they lose have given way to pointed threats of violence, threats that analysts say reflect not only deepening insecurity on the part of the ruling party, but also the psychological hold violence still has on Cambodia after decades of killing.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling CPP have long warned that the country could fall into a state of chaos and civil war if the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were to gain power during Sunday’s commune elections or the upcoming 2018 national elections.
While the comments have been seen as a veiled threat by some, the CPP has always maintained that they were simply cautioning people on the instability that would follow should the inexperienced CNRP attempt to govern. In recent weeks, however, government officials have made more direct threats against opposition leaders and supporters.
On May 17, Defence Minister Tea Banh said that if the opposition party and its supporters don’t accept the election results they will be beaten “until their teeth come out”, drawing condemnation from civil society groups that the comments violated the military’s neutrality. (CNRP President Kem Sokha vowed yesterday to make it illegal for military members to join political parties if his party wins in 2018.)
Party spokesman Sok Eysan escalated Banh’s rhetoric the next day, warning protesters could even “die”.
And despite the fact that the ruling party was threatening violence against the opposition, it was Hun Sen who complained about the CNRP’s campaign rhetoric on Thursday, warning that the CPP could unleash war if the insults did not stop.
“These are words that can cause war if the CPP cannot be patient anymore and goes and burns your homes down,” the prime minister said during a conference with Cambodia’s Christian community.
But despite the escalation of the rhetoric, opposition spokesman Yim Sovann in a recent interview rejected the idea that voters would be intimidated, and expressed confidence that the government would not follow through on its threats.
Analysts, however, weren’t so sure, saying the violent rhetoric is a reflection of the CPP’s loosening grip on the country, and must be taken seriously.
“Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and the threats are not of some disaster happening, they’re of the plain-old threat-variety . . . If I tell you I’m going to knock your teeth out or even kill you and I really have all the guns, it’s not a joke. It’s a credible threat,” Ear Sophal, a political analyst and professor of world affairs at Occidental College in California, said in an email.
Sophal added that there is a lingering attraction to violence in the Kingdom, in spite – or perhaps because – of Cambodia’s ongoing recovery after the mass atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.
“You’d think that after the Khmer Rouge, there would be a rejection of violence, but violence remains panacea for some, and violence begets more violence,” Sophal said.
“Violence is ingrained because might makes right in Cambodia,” he added.
Youk Chhang, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, agreed that violent imagery still resonates with Cambodian voters because of the country’s brutal past.
“No one has experienced more than Cambodia with suppression, genocide and war… war and genocide have become a part of us,” Chhang said yesterday, adding that violent rhetoric is a reflection of the way the Khmer Rouge has influenced Cambodian identity.
“It has worked over the last 35 years. The people understand violence,” Chhang said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, acknowledged that violence and threats were part of the government’s playbook in previous election cycles, but said the ruling party is experiencing new levels of “desperation”. “I do think that the use of this sort of rhetoric shows that they are concerned about losing these elections and by extension the elections next year,” he said.
Strangio said the CPP’s main stumping point that the country would collapse into chaos should they be removed from power is particularly dangerous because it’s a sincerely held belief.
Ironically, the government is so sure that the CNRP’s election would destroy the nation that it may be willing to cause destruction of its own to prevent it.
And, while the younger generation is often seen as being immune to such rhetoric because they did not live through the violent upheaval of previous generations, Strangio said this theory may not hold weight.
“As soon as the government put troops on the streets and started shooting at protesters and killing people, a lot of that came to an end quite quickly,” he said of the 2013 post-election protests. “This fear is embedded in traditions of social hierarchy . . . my suspicion is that the difference between the generations is not as great as some would think. I don’t think Cambodia can transcend its history in one generation.”
Nonetheless, the CNRP’s Sovann insisted that the inflammatory speeches would do little to sway voters. “There’s no worry about that,” he said in an interview on Sunday.
“The voters haven’t paid any attention to that language . . . They will vote for their nation, for the future of their children. They will vote for CNRP,” he said, adding that he expects the military and the police to respect the will of the people.
But Strangio cautioned that there may be little to stay the hand of the government in the event of an upset, noting that threats could be more likely to translate into actual post-election violence thanks to Cambodia’s recent political realignment away from the West and towards China.
“My view is that the international community means less than in the past . . . I don’t think the government feels particularly restricted by the opinions of foreign governments.”