By Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The scenes in Phnom Penh last week were astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of people, including many young people, welcomed opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had just returned to Cambodia after four years effectively in exile. Not to be outdone, the very next day, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) staged a huge youth rally and concert in Phnom Penh for more than 10,000 supporters. Amid the election fever that has gripped Cambodia ahead of the national polls on Sunday, one thing is clear – people seem less afraid than ever to voice their opinion.
Anyone in the capital or provincial centers will have seen activists and supporters of the main political parties campaigning peacefully. And no one can have missed the “moto-rallies,” in which hundreds of young people ride around the streets on their motorcycles, loudly promoting their parties and policies. The atmosphere has often been electric, and generally peaceful.
Yet this eagerness to speak out and openly call for “change” may seem surprising, given that Cambodia’s government has not generally looked kindly on critics.