Scuttlebutt is not normally a major part of the stock-in-trade for journalists covering elections. But in countries like Cambodia with an absence of opinion polls, access to government ministers and the usual spin doctors attempting to mold public opinion, gossip can be as good as it gets. And the rumor mill around Phnom Penh is thriving. The impressions are daunting. Increasingly, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) looks paranoid, even delusional, despite widespread expectations that it will easily win the July 28 poll, albeit with a reduced majority. This was typified over the weekend. On Friday the government announced what effectively amounted to a ban on foreign radio broadcasts inside the country in order “to ensure fair and unbiased media coverage” of the election campaign. The ban was dropped just two days later following a chorus of international criticism, led by Washington, which made CPP strategists blush.
This came after a rare political blunder by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who claimed opposition figure Kem Sokha had paid US$500 for sex with a 15-year-old girl. Hun Sen said he had intervened and knowingly broke the law by preventing Kem Sokha’s arrest.
The admission upset even his most ardent fans and has taken on an added nuance when compared with his statements made last year when he told U.S. President Barack Obama that he could not possibly facilitate the release of dissident broadcaster Mam Sonanda as this was a matter for the courts alone.
What exactly the motivation was behind the sexual complaints leveled against Kem Sokha is unclear. Hun Sen likes to ramble and can talk for up to four hours among villagers while on the hustings and doling out rice, cigarettes and other perks.
Such generosity was once enough to guarantee a healthy return at the ballot box from a nation of villagers who were genuinely grateful that Hun Sen had finally put an end to 30 years of war.
But that was way back in 1998. Times have changed and so have the demographics. A generation of young people, disaffected by war and demanding Japanese motorbikes, iphones, flat screen televisions and enough money to indulge in the capital’s vibrant nightclub scene are emerging as a political force.