Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife Bun Rany and an entourage of ministers conducted a prayer ceremony over the weekend at the Angkor Wat temple complex – an elaborate two-day event that recalled the traditions of ancient Khmer rulers and, officials claimed, proved the country’s “political stability”.
With his wife at his side, and ministers surrounding him, Hun Sen was blessed with holy water and jasmine petals before several thousand monks in yesterday’s early morning hours, with an orchestra and dancers from the Royal Ballet performing for the crowd.
When the premier announced the event on November 22 – just six days after the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, his party’s only real competition – he pointed to it as an example of “peace, independence and political stability”.
“This shows that Cambodia is not in anarchy or a country at war,” he said at the time, insisting “everything is running normally”.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the event yesterday, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona maintained that such celebrations are “nothing new” – although they have historically been presided over by royalty dating back to the Chenla period, and to the reign of Jayavarman II, the first self-proclaimed God-King of the Angkor Empire.
“The current King Sihamoni also used to conduct this ceremony,” she said. “[The ceremony] is held [because] whenever we are in peace and happiness we have to remind ourselves who has passed down our ancestor’s heritage.”
The royal motif was present in brochures distributed to participants, which rooted the ceremony in the tradition of kings – though neither King Norodom Sihamoni, nor Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk were present.
The ministers of education and defence, as well as the prime minister’s son Hun Many – who was involved in the organisation of the event – each declined to comment on the political backdrop of the event.
Tourism Minister Thong Kong shrugged off any suggestions that the country was in political turmoil. “We have no crisis, but there are politicians who are having a crisis themselves,” he said, in an apparent reference to members of the now-disbanded opposition, many of whom have fled fearing arrest.
Sackona, for her part, reiterated the official view that the ceremony was proof of Cambodia’s stability. “We can do this only if we are happy and safe. If there is war like in the Middle East, how can we do that?”
For attendees, however, the political situation was anything but tranquil. Still, of the dozen or so interviewed, most said praying was their best hope.
Mao Dip, a 30-year-old farmer from Siem Reap’s Selok commune who attended the ceremony, said she was once a CNRP supporter but has since changed allegiance to the ruling party, though she was hesitant to discuss politics.
“I’m afraid to talk about the political situation,” she said.
She noted she had come because it was a chance to pray for her three children “to be smart and have a good future”.
Prak Sam Arng, 69, came from Siem Reap town with her son Meng Daravong, 47, and said she prayed for political reconciliation. “I do not want problems to happen; we want [politicians] to stop fighting each other and live together . . . The conflict is not a good thing; it affects our business and it might cause difficulties for the next generation,” she said, after offering monks a gift of food.
Daravong echoed his mother, saying the political situation had deeply impacted national sentiment and that he feared the possibility of bloodshed if tensions continued. “I hope everything will become normal, as before.”
Commenting from afar, former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath observed that an event for peace, while welcome, would ring hollow so long as political repression continues.
“To pray is superstition. In reality, the political problem needs to be settled,” he said. Using a religious ceremony, he continued, was simply another way to silence dissent by manipulating the population’s emotions and spiritual beliefs.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay, meanwhile, pointed out the redundancy in praying for peace and stability if – as the premier claims – those goals have already been reached. “Why is the praying needed?” he asked.
Additional reporting by AFP