CNRP President Sam Rainsy

CNRP President Sam Rainsy

This interview was originally published in The DiplomatJanuary 10th 2014

These are troubled times in Cambodia. A disputed election last year prompted ongoing protests andopposition boycotts. Emboldened by a surprisingly strong performance in the July 28 polls, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been insistent on calling for an investigation into election irregularities. Strongman ruler Hun Sen has been equally stubborn in resisting them.

Entering 2014, and the protests have spread, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Joining the CNRP were unions, notably from the country’s crucial garment industry, demanding a hike in their minimum wage.

Those protests prompted a government crackdown last week, resulting in a number of deaths and throwing the protests into disarray. Court summons were issued for opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and Cambodia is on the verge of returning to a police state.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rainsy outside Australian Embassy

CNRP Chief Sam Rainsy outside the Australian Embassy at the three day protest earlier this month | © Charlotte Pert 2013:

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday, Sar Kheng, Cambodia’s Minister for the Interior said “my phone remains open” to opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy should he wish to contact him to resume negotiations. Mr. Rainsy wasted little time. After a ballsy challenge from a journalist to make the call there and then at this morning’s press conference at the CNRP headquarters, Mr. Rainsy was handed a Nokia and gave Sar Kheng a ring.

He got only his answer machine. Mr. Rainsy declined to leave a message.

But another face-to-face meeting between the two sides, the first since 16th September, looks increasingly likely. If the CNRP are still singing from a familiar hymn sheet – pushing for a third-party observer over an investigation into electoral irregularities, the resignation of the National Election Committee (NEC) and sweeping electoral reform – the key has changed, if almost imperceptibly: these are now “suggestions not conditions” explained Kem Sokha, CNRP co-president.

Mr. Rainsy has consistently rejected out of hand the CPP’s previously held condition that the CNRP takes up their seats in the National Assembly before talks resume. But as part of the “he said, she said” merry-go-round that is contemporary Cambodian politics, CPP Spokesman Cheam Yeap denied yesterday that the government had any such prerequisite for negotiations to take place.

Read the rest of this entry »

© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

Excerpt from collaborative project with Ruom Collective.

In the weeks following the last three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) the coils of razor wire that barricaded most of Phnom Penh’s main traffic arteries could be spotted being put to altogether more innocent uses. Wet clothes hung from several to dry, another became an impromptu stand for an enterprising florist, another a display rack for a grocer’s ladyfinger bananas.

Just days previously the barriers had served as a catalyst for violence, igniting clashes between riot police and protestors during the demonstration. When blockades prevented people getting home, tension escalated and the result was six seriously injured and one man shot dead when government troops opened fire.

During this week’s protests the roadblocks were entirely absent. Mu Sochua told Ruom that this showed that “the local authorities are learning to face the reality that using force is not appropriate at all.” Others may argue that incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen had made a shrewd calculation to avoid the confrontations that had the Kingdom of Wonder briefly flickering on the global news radar…

Read the full story and see more of Ruom‘s superb photography go here.


© George Steptoe 2013

Spirits were buoyant in the Freedom Park camp the night before the final day of the three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), where about 3,000 protestors from myriad provincial regions were bedding down for the night.

By 10pm a blind sitar player and his backing percussion ensemble clattering pans with wooden spoons had quietened down and the 20 revellers dancing under the light of a lamppost had retired to their cardboard matts. The camp was still abuzz with optimistic chatter: although the CNRP’s efforts to secure an independent investigation into the 28th July election that they claim was mired in widespread fraud have borne little fruit you wouldn’t have been able to tell that here. 71-year-old Yien Chhay who had travelled with five other villagers from Kampot’s corner of the Kingdom was confident that governmental change was imminent.

Photos courtesy of Si Allen (; Click on an image to launch slideshow.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner

Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner | © George Steptoe 2013

A popular Cambodian protest song, first composed a decade ago but with remarkably enduring popularity, uses the allegory of a filthy shirt worn everyday for too long to chastise the festering stasis cultivated under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Banned for many years, it was performed by a live band in front of 20,000 protestors on the first of a three-day demonstration held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) over complaints of electoral cheating at the national elections, now a whole 87 days ago.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, dressed as ever in his pristine white pressed shirt, marched from the stage in Freedom Park to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights some 1600m away flanked by tens of thousands of protestors. He popped inside to deliver a petition of over two million thumbprints demanding an independent investigation into election irregularities, a petition he described afterwards as being “the will of the Cambodian people”.

“We are very grateful to the representative of the UN in Cambodia to have accepted the petition and to act as a [custodian] to keep in safe haven those thumbprints. They told us that they will send the petition to the UN headquarters in New York to ensure their safety” he said.

After the broad ten-point legislative agenda announced at the People’s Congress, today’s demonstration saw the CNRP’s dress code return to a well-worn wardrobe favourite. Gone was any talk of their program of reforms to prevent land-grabbing, deforestation and rights abuses. In its place was a redoubled focus on the opposition’s central complaint: electoral fraud, plain and simple.

Read the rest of this entry »


© George Steptoe 2013

With tears streaming down her face, 36-year-old El Sarifat describes how she is “terrified” of losing the modest wooden two-tier home she shares with 13 relatives. She returned to the house that perches on stilts over the Sangkae River, Battambong province last Friday after it was completely submerged by this year’s month-long flooding, which to date has left 134 confirmed dead.

But having weathered the impact of natural forces, Sarifat is now cowering under the threat of having to sell up the family home she’s lived in since 1979 to break free of an already suffocating debt cycle fuelled by multiple loans from micro‐banks and private moneylenders that this latest disaster has rendered unbearable.

Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_5860 copyCambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has a fondness for flexing his military muscle and this morning’s riot police presence at a Cambodian Grassroots People’s Assembly (CGPA) was a veritable rippling bicep laid bare in the baking October Phnom Penh sun. The combined troops, numbering into the thousands, outmanned the CGPA – a collective of community interest groups including labour, forestry and fisheries – by a ratio of about three to one.

The Ministry of Interior declared the meeting illegal because the conglomerate is unregistered. The announcement didn’t stop them, but when the CGPA arrived at their intended locale, Freedom Park – the only site in the Cambodian capital where peaceful protest is permitted – they found it had been annexed by hordes of riot police running drills in anticipation of the nationwide opposition party protest scheduled for 23rd-25th October. Whether an extraordinarily coincidental timetabling clash or brazenly pugnacious disdain, the statement of intent was obvious.

Read the rest of this entry »

This post is for Blog Action Day 2013.House Underwater

The 2013 floods in Cambodia have so far claimed 122 lives, affected 1.5 million people and displaced 70,000 families. But in addition to the misery of loss of livestock, destruction of crops and property, the monetary woes wrought by an acute vulnerability to financial shocks can leave lasting damage long after water levels have receded for Cambodia’s agrarian poor, often propelling households irretrievably into debt.

Human rights protection and the promotion of economic development are closely intertwined: the rights to life, food, water, health and self-determination. As is now part of an established global trend, it’s the world’s poorest that are hit disproportionately hard by the effects of climate change. Cambodia is ranked in the top ten most vulnerable nations and although floods are part and parcel of the seasonal cycle here, Cambodia is increasingly susceptible to unseasonably heavy monsoons and an unfortunate combination of factors has made this year’s floods particularly devastating.

200 displaced families wait to receive care packages, Nraeu commune, Battambang Province

200 displaced families wait to receive care packages, Nraeu commune, Battambang Province

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,256 other followers