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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

A legacy of politics in Cambodia

He is grieving for his country. You can see it in his eyes.

I come home to a unique sight. My host mother is pacing beneath the house, yelling, as one of her sons zips away on a moto. Her words jump from her mouth like toy soldiers, chasing off her son. The moto disappears down the gravel road but her Khmer rantings continue. Her neighbors, sitting a few yards away on their porch, occasionally interject with a bout of laughter. But their discomfort is clear on their faces. A few minutes later, when she finally settles down, I am approached by Hun Garu.

He and I have spoken on several occasions before. A young entrepreneur with a budding construction company, Garu has a relatively strong grasp of English. We sit down together and he asks me if I know why my mae was so upset.

Like many family arguments, this one is about politics, he says. Her son is opposed to the Cambodian People’s Party, the political group that has been in power, whether officially or not, since the fall of Pol Pot. He was openly voicing his displeasure with the CPP, which was apparently enough to set his mother off. She is a fan of the CPP, and thanks the party for freeing Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, as well as building schools, pagodas and roads. But she is also scared of the CPP. Out of fear she proclaimed that he was stupid to say such things in the open. They would come and take him, she said. She yelled of men in black pajamas and red kramas, who would drag her son into the woods to never be seen again. The Khmer Rouge is gone. But government oppression is not forgotten.

My friend is quick to inform me that the days of such acts are over. But this is not entirely true. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has effectively ruled Cambodia since the 1980s, has always enforced his rule through intimidation and the open killing of opposition. Just about a year ago, a prominent critic of the Hun family’s business ties was gunned down while enjoying his morning coffee in the Central Market in Phnom Penh. And last week, Cambodia’s corrupt courts disbanded the Cambodian National Rescue Party, an opposition party that battles corruption and wants to destroy the patronage system that defines Cambodia’s government.

Hun Garu and my host brother are supporters of the CNRP. Garu’s frustration, which is not unlike my host brother’s, is evident, “There is no democracy in Cambodia. There are pressures everywhere. They pressure us to only think one way.”

I press him further, “the CPP owns all the media right?”

“Yes, the only news in Cambodia is from CPP. But it is lies. They lie so people think everything that is good in Cambodia is because of CPP.”

“Do people believe the news?”

“Many people do. Hun Sen is scared. They got rid of CNRP because they won a lot in 2017.”

He struggles to describe the concept of government positions at different non-national levels. “There is village,” he says, gesturing, “then many village is district, then provinces. Even though the CPP cheated, CNRP won 5,000 seats across Cambodia. So the CPP destroyed them in court.”

I continue to listen as he describes the age discrepancy in Cambodian politics.

“Less than 30, everybody loves CNRP. But lots of older people like CPP. They remember the Khmer Rouge, they think the CPP freed them. But they are also scared of CPP, because they remember what the Khmer Rouge did with their power.”

Liam, who has joined our conversation from his house across the street, asks if he will go to vote next election now that there is only one major party. Garu responds, “I will go to vote, but not vote. I will write ‘SAVE OUR NATION’ in two languages.”

“They can ban CNRP, but it will always be here,” he says as he raises his hand to his heart.

He is grieving for his country. You can see it in his eyes.