Cambodians head to the polls on Sunday, in what analysts are calling a ‘political spring’. We called on people close to the action to recall stories — from the funny to the dramatic — from elections past and present.
‘The last UNTAC laughing soup’
While Tim Page is among the most celebrated photojournalists of the Vietnam War, his colourful eccentricities are also a source of legend. Described in Michael Herr’s seminal book Dispatches as among the most extravagant ‘wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam’, Page is not shy about his drug use, having told the Post in 2009 that he took ‘serious amounts’ of LSD in the 1970s.
The election and my birthday fell on the same weekend. I had come back to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap with three kilos of quite reasonable weed. We decided to make laughing chicken soup on the roof of the old [Phnom Penh Post] building.
It was a massive party. We made about 40-50 litres with the weed and some herbs and some things. The whole of the press corps was there, a lot of people who had covered the war before. There must have been 60-70 people up there over the course of the night.
The [marijuana] quality was much better in 1993 because you could still go to a lot of restaurants and it would be on the menu.
You could order any food with or without ganja, before they decided to make it illegal. We even came back with the weed in an UNTAC Bell 212 (helicopter). It was the last UNTAC-sponsored laughing chicken soup.
We never strained the soup, so it looked foul, like a combination of compost and the white stuff on the beach. It tasted a bit weedy, a bit chickeny — organic is a good word to describe it. It wasn’t Michelin four star, but it wasn’t bad.
We left army mugs for people to take the soup, and people were taking the stuff down. They just loved it. And it got stronger and stronger the longer we cooked it because the oil absorbed it.
I think everyone got the idea fairly quickly. The next morning, you wondered a bit what you were doing all night.
We were supposed to be at the Olympic Stadium to see Hun Sen cast the first vote, but everyone missed it. Some never made it out of the building, and one person collapsed in the street.
You don’t get a hangover like you do with alcohol, but the thought of going out into the stinking hot sun to cover the f---ing election didn’t have any appeal. But I went to Kampong Speu and Takeo and got some good pictures.
‘Why won’t you let the PM out?’
In 1990, John Shapiro, co-founder of independent dance and music troupe Khmer Arts Theatre, was a Hollywood production manager visiting his sister, a dance ethnographer researching at RUFA in Phnom Penh.
I first came to Phnom Penh in August 1990. Cambodia at that time had no systematic relationship with the Western world, it was desperately poor, there was a curfew, and you could still hear bomb shells going off. I had to fly through Laos to get in, on this old Russian Antonov 225.
On my flight out two weeks later, in August, Hun Sen was on the plane with his wife and young family, in the front row. The flight was to Vientiane, the airline was Lao Aviation.
It was so hot and steamy, mosquitoes were everywhere, and when the plane took off, this blast of ice-cold steam poured out of the vents — the passengers disappeared under a blanket of the stuff. Then this 13-year-old stewardess came around with fluorescent green soda — it was so surreal. The tyres in the plane had bubbles in them. Yeah, I remember being a little scared about jumping on that plane!
The plane didn’t crash, however, and when we landed in Vientiane, Hun Sen got up to leave immediately with his family — we were told to stay put until the prime minister was off the plane. He marched down the aisle, but when he got to the doors, they wouldn’t open. Forty minutes later, the doors still hadn’t budged.
Time is passing, then finally an assistant screams out in English: ‘Why won’t you let the prime minister out?’ The pilot replies he has no idea what is going on. Everyone panicked, including Hun Sen and his family — you see, [former Philippine senator] Benigno Aquino had been assassinated at an airport several years earlier in the Philippines [in 1983].
I thought, 'Oh no, s--t', and I hid under the seat. In the end, it turned out the Laos general was just late to arrive at the airport and everyone outside at the airport was too scared to open the doors without him there.
‘It was aptly named a media circus’
Harish Mehta (former Indochina correspondent, Singapore Business Times, author of the Hun Sen biography Strongman, and currently a historian teaching at McMaster University and Trent University in Canada) reported on the election process from 1989 to 1993.
When in April 1993 UNTAC began issuing press passes to accredited reporters, the response was overwhelming: swarms of “reporters” showed up at the UNTAC media office.
I personally witnessed a hilarious episode at the UNTAC media office one morning in April 1993, when four barebacked, blond, fresh-faced young men wearing only shorts and flip-flops showed up to get their press passes that would give them access to their dream assignment.
Here is how I remember the conversation between an UNTAC media secretary and one of the young men:
The lady secretary looked amused at seeing their sunburned Bondi-beach bodies within the UN headquarters, where most officials wore suits, ties or military uniforms.
“So, which newspaper or magazine do you represent?” she asked seriously.
“None really, we just want to write something for a paper back home in Australia and the UK,” one of the shirtless young men said disinterestedly.
“Do you have a letter from your editor, authorising you to cover the election?” she queried.
“No, but I can write one for you, right now. Do you have some paper on you?” the shirtless one asked, looking very bored.
She handed him pen and paper, and he took his time composing a brief letter, requesting a press pass.
I am not sure if the Shoeless Joes were actually granted press passes. They may have been. For, in the early days, UNTAC was eager to get wide media coverage.
The granting of press passes to the four backpackers was probably a one-off event. Most backpackers were actually getting their fake UNTAC press passes in Bangkok, leading UNTAC to revoke several of them.
UNTAC did not impose a dress code, but CPP officials believed that many journalists were dressing in a manner that was disrespectful and would be unacceptable in their own countries. CPP officials declared that journalists in shorts were not welcome in government offices, or at CPP press briefings. If journalists wished to attend these briefings, they were not to wear flip-flops, singlets, or shorts. The code aimed to keep backpackers out.
I pushed the dress code as far as it would go. I wore collarless t-shirts, knee-length shorts, and a pair of preppy boat-shoes, with or without socks. Except when I was out interviewing PM Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh, Son Sann or the Australian Lieutenant General John Sanderson (the UNTAC force commander), all of whom made great copy.
Had I shown up to interview them in a singlet, shorts and flip-flops, their secretaries might have sent me back home to change.
‘Sihanouk would be mocking’
Prince Sisowath Thomico served as the personal assistant to his uncle, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, from 1979 to 1990, and again from 2000 until the King Father’s death last year. In the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 elections, Thomico advised the King Father as he tried to mediate between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the alliance formed by Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party . Thomico joined the Cambodia National Rescue Party following his uncle’s death and is now running for a seat in Preah Sihanouk province.
The King Father spent one year in Beijing before the 2003 elections. When he came back right before the election, he asked what my feeling was, and I answered that we were moving toward a tripartite government.
My guess was that the Funcinpec and SRP would end up with the same number of seats in Parliament. And I think the elections proved that I was right, because in the end, the Funcinpec had 26 seats and the SRP had 24 seats.
It was my guess, and it was my wish as well.
After the results of the elections were proclaimed, the King Father tried to broker the tripartite coalition government. But it wasn’t until June 2004 that a new government was formed after negotiations between the three parties. During that stall, from July 2003 to June 2004, I think he was kind of mocking the three parties. He was writing messages and notes that were published on his website, saying that they did not think of the interests of Cambodia and of the people; they rather thought of the interests of the parties and personalities.
And I think history has proved him right. If he were still alive, he would be mocking the parties today.
‘I voted without thinking’
Em Riem, internationally acclaimed artist, designer and owner of La Galerie X-EM Design on Street 178, said he did not know much about politics when he voted for the first time in the 1993 elections at age 22 — elections that had a drastically different mood to those of 2013.
In 1993, it was exciting to vote to change, because before it was communist, and then it changed to democracy. You had a logo of every party on the ballot, and you could cross whichever you wanted. It felt a little bit strange. And I remember UN everywhere looking at the election and wondering: Is it a real election with democracy, or do we not have democracy?
But we didn’t know, not too much information for the election. I didn’t have a TV, so I only got information from the street. I just voted without thinking. I maybe chose the wrong candidate, or maybe it was good. I was very young and I just voted. I didn’t think about the future before, because it was the first time. And now, I think about it a lot.
Now we have a lot of information. Khmer people can choose. We have a lot of technology, we can use Facebook or YouTube to discuss politics. We can use our iPhones to directly film events and put them online. Technology is another form of freedom, and makes things more fair now. Before, we just had TV, and there is not much education on TV, only things like karaoke, stories and Korean cinema.
There was not too much democracy [in 1993]. People didn’t talk much about elections and were very discreet. There was no singing or big crowds in the streets. And then afterward, we had a problem with the military coup in 1997.
Today, things have changed a lot. Everywhere, people are up until midnight crying, choosing, saying we should change, or maybe not change. Khmer people, they maybe want to change, or maybe they want to keep [CPP].
There is a lot of competition. People are getting into the motos and tuk-tuks and showing liberty, democracy, choice and change.
‘The mood in the VIP area was of excitement’
Last Friday, on the day that Sam Rainsy arrived in Phnom Penh after nearly four years in self-imposed exile, Soma Norodom was one of a select group who were in the airport to greet him when he arrived.
The mood at the VIP area inside the airport was of excitement, as about 100 guests and supporters, and 20 security guards, waited for the return of Sam Rainsy.
Mu Sochua was the leader and organised the group to make sure we were in line (formed two lines) and prepare for the meet and greet with Rainsy.
She (Mu Sochua) was so busy, but later on came up and greeted me, and apologised for not meeting me at first. I was honoured just to meet her. I was chosen to attend the VIP Meet and Greet with Sam Rainsy, as a guest of Ms. Theary Seng.
I met supporters of CNRP from France, and they flew in for this momentous occasion and wanted to be here to support their hero and president, Sam Rainsy. There was a feeling of pride, of optimism, and all wanted change.
Another supporter was from the US and from California, and was a graduate of Cal State University - Stanislaus and familiar with where I went to college, Fresno State. We talked about the future of Cambodia and how his return might be the turning point of the election. He had his camera and was the photographer for the party.
When Sam Rainsy arrived, he was with Kem Sokha, VP, who met him in Bangkok, and both held hands and walked through the lounge to the VIP area. At that time, I was inside the VIP Lounge, escorted by my uncle, Prince Sisowath Thomico, and Rainsy did not say anything, I only saw the smile on his face, and you could see the joy in everybody’s eyes when he finally arrived. One supporter came up and hugged him and cried.
I was able to walk behind him, as the bodyguards formed a circle around him and Kem Sokha, even though the people who were there were CNRP supporters. He smiled the entire time and didn’t say a word.
It was a historic moment in Cambodia’s election, as Sam Rainsy finally stepped foot in Cambodia, his homeland. I don’t think he ever imagined millions of people were there cheering him and supporting the party, as the truck made its way from the airport and on to Freedom Park on that Friday, July 19, 2013.