Many international observers are keeping a close eye on Cambodia, as the country prepares to go to the polls in July. Will the elections be fair and free?
Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen recently vowed to stay in power for another decade, until he’s 74.
And the leader of the main opposition party, Sam Rainsy, is still in exile and faces imprisonment if he returns to Cambodia.
But he’s trying to win support for his campaign... online.
The leader of National Rescue Party, Cambodia’s main opposition, has thousands of online supporters.
From his exile in France, he regularly posts articles, photos and videos on his Facebook page.
“Hello, dear compatriots! I would like you to support the National Rescue Party, to help us win the upcoming election,” says Sam Rainsy in one of the recent videos.
“If the NRP wins the election, I will use my experience as the former Financial Minister in the 1990s, to save our economy. Please vote for the NRP.”
More than 7 thousand people have liked his Facebook page and thousands have commented on his articles.
“I’m praying that you and your party will win the election. Hun Sen has to go!” writes Sandy Norton from Phnom Penh.
Another comment comes from Sum Manet who lives in the western province of Cambodia, an opposition stronghold.
“I have commented on the election on Facebook. I said that voters need to know about their right to choose their leaders. I have shared my opinions on the current human rights situation in Cambodia and how this relates to the election.”
Sam Rainsy started using Facebook extensively to campaign last month. He’s turning online after being barred from the election because of his criminal convictions, which many believe are politically motivated.
He has been living in exile since 2009 and faces imprisonment if he returns to Cambodia.
In a recent phone interview, he said that he has been urging the government to allow him back home to contest the election.
“Actually, we only have two candidates for Prime Minister – the ruling candidate and myself, Sam Rainsy, who represents the opposition, the National Rescue Party. And observers know that the ruling candidate is afraid of contesting the election with me.”
The opposition has promised an increase in salary for civil servants, military and police personnel and garment workers if they win the election.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that Cambodia will risk slipping into civil war again if the opposition wins.
“Please think again about the opposition leader’s vow to arrest my leaders because they were former officials in the Khmer Rouge regime. You should examine his speech carefully. This could spark a civil war like we had under Pol Pot’s regime.”
But Sam Rainsy has now been struck off the list of candidates. Cambodia’s election law forbids convicted criminals from contesting.
“As a citizen, he has the right to get involved in politics, but as a political candidate, that’s another issue,” says Tep Nitha, spokesperson for the Election Commission.
“All candidates have to respect the election law... but he’s not a candidate now, so there’s no abuse of the law.”
Sam Rainsy’s name has also been deleted from the voters’ registration list. But NRP will continue their online campaign.
“The NRP has an important message for eligible voters. And Sam Rainsy’s speech on Facebook attracted many people,” says NRP spokesman Yem Sovann, “It’s an injustice that my party’s president is barred from contesting the election.”
The President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak, is warning people about the dangers of posting their support online.
The draft of a new Cyber Law criminalises online dissent and the dissemination of ‘false information’ on the internet... but many of the details are still unclear.
“If you express your opinion on Facebook, it’s not a problem. But if you say something about politics or the human rights situation, and express your support for the opposition party, you could get into trouble because of the draft Cyber Law. It could impact on the party’s popularity.”
Sam Rainsy will still be the head of the National Rescue Party and the party will continue to pursue reforms so its leader can return home. And if the party wins election they could still submit Rainsy’s name for Prime Minister when forming the new cabinet.
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