The mood in Cambodia has been electric since last month’s national elections. They were Cambodia’s fifth “free” elections since 1993.
After decades of violence from US carpet bombing and Khmer Rouge genocide in the 70s to Vietnamese occupation and one party rule in the 80s and early 90s.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party saw its majority slashed from 90 to 68. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) almost doubled its share to 55 seats.
This is despite a concerted government attempt to rig the vote through bribes, control of the police, military and state bureaucracy.
It tried to jail opposition leader Sam Rainsy, before barring him from standing in the election. The result represents a major challenge to the government.
Prime minister Hun Sen has led an authoritarian regime since coming to office nearly three decades ago.
It sold Cambodia’s resources to private firms that have kept wages low. It has presided over obscene levels of corruption and violent suppression of any challenge to its rule.
Cambodia’s neighbouring regional powers, China and Vietnam, back the regime. But its rule is looking increasingly shaky.
The CNRP’s base is focused around the poor of Cambodia’s main cities and provincial towns.
This gives it huge support as there is virtually no middle class in Cambodia.
The opposition promised to improve health and education, introduce a basic pension, increase wages and stamp out corruption. Many see it as a beacon of resistance to the ruling regime.
Over 100,000 people have lined the streets for mass rallies in support of the CNRP in both of Cambodia’s major cities.
But the situation is complex. Rainsy, a former banker, was part of the government as finance minister in 1993.
He used to be a member of a right wing royalist party. Rainsy says he has a “vaguely liberal” agenda. He wants to beat the “neo-feudal” regime of Hun Sen to develop Cambodia as a modern capitalist economy open to Western investment.
Yet many put their hopes in Rainsy because there is no serious organised resistance to the government.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, cheers could be heard for any result that went in Rainsy’s favour. Many people said that the CNRP would win outright if the elections were fair.
There was also widespread anger at the way the vote has been clearly rigged.
In the capital Phnom Penh, riots broke out in some areas. Protesters threw rocks at the police and set two military police cars on fire.
Rainsy has refused to recognise the result. But the country’s courts, under government control, are almost certain to affirm it.
He has also called for supporters to avoid violence to try and keep the movement off the streets. Whether big protest movements develop remains to be seen.
Much of Cambodia’s population is still scattered in villages and many jobs in the cities rely on tourism.
This creates a huge pressure not to protest for fear of harming the country’s reputation.
Yet a new layer of politicised people are more confident to challenge Hun Sen. If they organise independently they could challenge Cambodia’s regime—and the interests of ruling powers across the region too.