Fairness is out of the question. I think even fair elections are out of the question. There is an atmosphere of fear, (created by) the ruling party, which to me should not belong to any democratic election. The point of an election is people who cast the ballot according to their will. Once fear is part of the process they cannot express their will.Fear tactic is really dirty and really sad at the same time during the Cambodian election and that is why we cannot have a free election. However, I think the level of violence is much, much lower. Not just the number, but also the kind of violence is different.
The only question now is not whether elections are free and fair. The only question now is whether the whole election process is acceptable. I think this is possible for this election, particularly with the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy. I feel that more and more people are asserting themselves, taking it to the street - willing to join despite the fear factors. That is really positive and I’m very excited about it. This is an election in a long time that it is this exciting. Anyway, I hope there will be no violence in the days after the election.
Is there a risk of violence during or after the elections?
It depends on the election outcome, but I don’t expect major violence. First, the opposition doesn’t have the military power to cause any instability. Second, the ruling party doesn’t have any reason to cause instability. They own pretty much the whole country. They own lots of the natural resources, the big businesses and instability would hit them the most.
What role do social media play during this election campaign?
Social media became significant, but this was predictable. Somehow it surprised many people, particularly politicians. I have no idea why they should be surprised. First, you have a young population; I call them the post-Khmer Rouge baby Boomers generation. These people were born in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge. They didn’t experience trauma. So the magnitude of trauma is less than an issue for them than for their parents. So, you have a post-Khmer Rouge baby boomer generation, who is now in their late 20s.
Second, you have wireless internet available throughout the country, the price is going down. You have cheap 50 USD Smartphones and you have Facebook. People are yearning to communicate and to connect. The Cambodian people, particularly when society suppresses their expression, are looking for alternatives to express themselves and social media is easier, cheaper, they feel freer. You see an exponential rise in people using social media, particularly Facebook.
If you look all over those key ingredients of a vibrant young population with cheap internet access and Smartphones and with wireless where a rural population can access, you have to believe that they are expressing their opinion and that they are now participating in politics. I had expected this all along. In the beginning they share photos with their friends, later on they share photos of the flooded Phnom Penh and then they are going to talk about politics and are going to make fun of leaders online. This is a natural kind of progression and one that we need to expect, but I think that politicians started to realize this only in the past one or two months. This, to me, is sad. Now, they are starting to use it, which is good for the election and democracy and hopefully it will have an impact. I think it has already had an impact and it will have an impact during the election.
What are the main issues the parties should address during the campaign?
I think there are serious pressing issues that both parties need to address. One is the level ofland insecurity. Land insecurity coming from the land grabs, coming from the lack of land titles, the lack of the judiciary, the lack of conflict resolution mechanisms. All parties should at least come up with a proper policy. I know the ruling party has been the party to the conflicts, the violation of the human rights, the land rights. The opposition needs to offer something better.
Another more tangible issue is certainly infrastructure. It is high up on the list of things what people care about and affects them directly. You can ride on a dirt road where you will breathe in dust or you can transport your vegetables to the market faster, cheaper, better.
I think those are the two keys to proper economic development.
The third one is the judiciary. It’s a little less tangible, but I hope it will be an election topic. Although, I know how difficult it is to explain the population judicial reforms.
I want to see more debates on those issues.
So there are not enough debates on those issues?
I don’t see most of these three issues debated at all. In fact, there is almost a blackout on those issues. A lot of the debate tends to be about personalities. A lot of the debate tends to be about things that really don’t matter to the public: about how the evidence on (the Khmer Rouge torture prison) Tuol Sleng is being recorded. I think Cambodian people deserve better than debates on what happened 35 years ago. I think it’s not a pressing issue for today and this should be an election about: the present and the future. We have a lot of people who have a long future to go. The future should be the key debate for the political parties and I think it will attract more votes.
What role does political and economic stability play during the elections?
It’s becoming the key issue, unfortunately. The reason why: because politicians are using it for their benefit and that is sad. Using fear tactics to scare people so that you can get votes is undemocratic.
National pride is part of the concept of the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). What is your opinion on the way the party uses this issue for the campaign?
I think national pride is normally an issue in most countries, it is not a problem. People are yearning for identity; they want to be proud on the international stage, particularly the youth.National pride is actually what gets the people on the street, not jobs. There are campaign issues that I know will attract votes, national pride is one of them.
I think CNRP is playing it pretty well, but there is national pride and racism. I think the opposition is not racist, but they need to be extremely careful. I think they are on a thin, thin line. They need to come out strong in the denouncement of racism, but then ride on the national pride agenda. I think the national pride touches the hearts of the people, particularly the youth, I think that’s what gets them on the streets and is going to energize the electorates. But you have got to do it in a responsible way, you have to make sure that it has nothing to do with Thai-Vietnamese sentiment and no ethnic hatreds. If you don’t, that could be a danger for the opposition.
What does the return of CNRP leader Sam Rainsy play during the election campaign?
The opposition has been doing well and they have been doing well without Sam Rainsy. I think they will continue to do well. Different figures from the opposition have now been going out and speaking to the public. I think that’s the way for a party to go. It should never be centered on a single individual, whether it is Sam Rainsy, (CNRP Deputy) Kem Sokha or (Prime Minister) Hun Sen. Vision should be in the center and people should be around it. Common vision, common principles - those are what set the characters apart. Leaders need to have characters.
Sam Rainsy’s return is a short term boost adding momentum to the opposition and the fact that the election is only about a week away will benefit the opposition. But in the long run, after the election, the opposition also needs to reform. It can’t be personality centered, if it wants to be a long growing force.
Will his return boost conflicts within the former two parties who formed the CNRP?
They don’t have time for conflicts. If it is much longer than that, I think the potential is there. As I said, if people are not sharing common visions conflicts are natural. And people in politics are ambitious people. One of the things Sam Rainsy has to do to avoid conflicts is to set a deadline for him to exit, if he doesn’t succeed. He should have another chance, but he should set a deadline, so that parties can compete for leadership and there should be a fair competition within the party. You have to have a fair competition; Sam Rainsy has to accept that. Everybody who is now supporting him is actually looking for his job.
What is your prediction for the results?
I predict that the ruling party will win the election; they will form the next government with a weaker mandate. The opposition will have a stronger position with more seats.
I hope politicians will become a bit more mature. But that will be even more exciting in the next five years, because the post-Khmer Rouge baby Boomers will be in their 30s. You will have a lot of young energetic Cambodians wanting to become leaders, that’s great for democracy and Cambodia. I hope all of the old politicians will facilitate this change. If they facilitate that, I think we will have exciting 2018 elections.
Virak Ou (37) is a Cambodian human rights activist and intellectual, the President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, founder of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia, and winner of the Reebok Human Rights Award for his civil society campaign for freedom of expression and for the release of human rights advocates imprisoned for criticizing the Cambodian government.