Hy Theun's political awakening came late in life. She was attempting to settle her late husband’s affairs in 2010 when, for the first time, she ran into the brick wall of Cambodia’s much-maligned bureaucracy.
“When my husband died, I had to think of many things. I was so confused,” Theun said six days ago, sitting in front of her small home in Siem Reap.
“It was a very hard time for me, but the authorities didn’t care at all,” she continued. “When our neighbour suggested that I register for a death certificate for my husband with the authorities, they asked me for $500. They said they had to pay the court. Where can I find that money?”
Earlier this month, she said, just days before she heard of the CNRP’s rally, she found out that the authorities had been lying.
Theun, 40, has never voted, and even as recently as this campaign season, she said, she had attended political rallies of all stripes – Cambodian People’s Party, Cambodia National Rescue Party, even Funcinpec – just “to take part in social activities”.
“I had no idea of what politics were, or about the election. I just followed the other people,” she said. “I wanted to take part in social activities, and through those activities I learned that many people supported the CNRP.”
“Even though I am ignorant, and I am uneducated, I can still tell between what is right or wrong,” she added.
By the time she came around to the opposition and decided to utilise her vote, she found she had missed out – voter registration had already closed.
The July 28 elections came and went, the CNRP was ruled to have officially lost, and it appeared to Theun that the status quo would remain unchallenged. When a friend told her about the planned three-day rally in Phnom Penh, however, Theun resolved to go.
The CNRP’s policies seem tailor-made to someone like Theun. Since her husband’s death she has been the household’s sole breadwinner, picking up as a motodop where her husband left off. With three children – aged 20, 12 and 10 – all of whom are in school, Theun struggled to pay the bills, but her list of dependents doesn’t end there.
Theun’s aunt and uncle, both 70, also live in her home and depend on her for support – not least of all because her aunt suffers from a debilitating but undiagnosed disease that causes her to periodically lose control of one side of her body. What’s more, Theun also supports her mother, who still lives in the family’s home village.
Over the course of the campaign season, and long before, the CNRP promised higher salaries for civil servants like teachers, with the aim of discouraging the bribe-taking that inflates the cost of education.
For senior citizens like Theun’s elderly dependents, they have been promised a $10 monthly social security payment, money that she needs to help pay a debt to a local microfinance institution.
“My children asked me to not go [to the protest], especially my youngest daughter. She came and kissed me, and asked me to not leave, but I had already made a commitment to go and support them,” she said, casting her struggle for the opposition as a struggle for her children.
“‘If something bad happens to you, what about us?’” Theun said, recalling her son’s objections to her trip. “I told him: ‘Don’t worry, my son. I’m going there because of you.… My [trip] is for change, and that is for you. If our society becomes better, it’s also to your advantage.’”
On Saturday, Theun bought her children 10 eggs and 10 packets of noodles, handed them 22,000 riel and left on a CNRP-sponsored bus for Phnom Penh.
The first day of the opposition’s protest was an auspicious one, she said. Despite finding her way to the protest blocked by one of the dozens of barricades set up around the city, Theun appealed to a policeman’s sense of national solidarity and she was allowed to pass.
Even the rain had proved a blessing, she said, creating a rainbow over the setting sun that she believed bore an uncanny resemblance to the CNRP’s logo.
“I am so happy to be here. I’m having so much fun,” she said, sitting in Freedom Park on Sunday, referring to the rainbow-framed sun as “a miracle”. “I think God has heard our voice. I am praying to God, and I am full of hope that we will win.”
Hope briefly turned to fear on Monday, however, as news of the shooting death of Mao Sok Chan, reportedly at the hands of riot police, filtered through the crowd. But the sense of peace at the protest site, she said on Monday, laid her fears to rest.
But after the protest, and after a party meeting that yielded hints of agreement between the two sides, Theun was reluctant to say whether she supported the party’s hardline tack, or favoured one of compromise, saying that, in the end, it was up to the people. The message she wanted to send, she said, the one she couldn’t send on election day, was simply that the CPP must listen.
“Whatever the result, I will follow the majority. If they feel secure with the result, so do I,” she said on Tuesday, noting that she would gladly return for more demonstrations. “I don’t wish to come here to put someone down, but just to let Samdech Hun Sen consider why we want to change him. I don’t hate him. I just want him to consider it and step back.”