While a handful of wealthy Cambodians with Chinese ancestors are closely tied to the CPP elite, the opposition is hoping policies promoting small businesses could capture the votes of some of this large group ahead of the July 28 national election.
People of Chinese descent have been living in Cambodia for hundreds of years and have historically played a prominent role in trade and commerce, and now occupy some of the highest positions in government and in business.
CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, Choeung Sopheap—who own the controversial land concessionaire firms Shukaku Inc. and Pheapimex—along with casino magnate Kok An and Canadia Bank chairman Pung Kheav Se, all descendents of Chinese migrants, were all listed among Cambodia’s “top ten tycoons,” in a U.S. diplomatic cable, revealed by WikiLeaks.
But many young Chinese-Cambodians are still engaged in small businesses in and around Phnom Penh’s markets, and it is that group the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) hopes to attract.
“Now I’m happy and in peace. I don’t want change,” said Hea Mean, 28, who sells stationary in a stall at O’Russei Market, explaining that the CPP has been good to the ethnic Chinese community.
However, she admitted not all Chinese Cambodians felt this way.
“I have seen a lot [of Chinese-Cambodians] on the streets following the opposition, but it is just because they saw beautiful girls and boys on the bikes, and they follow them,” Ms. Mean said.
“The young kids don’t really follow politics. They say ‘change,’ but when they vote they’ll just follow their parents.”
According to the Association of Khmer Chinese in Cambodia, there are currently 700,000 Cambodian citizens of Chinese descent, about 5 percent of the total population and a significant portion of the electorate.
After suffering for allegedly being of a “criminal class” under the Khmer Rouge, Chinese-Cambodians did not thrive again until anti-Chinese sentiment and policies—through the prism of the government’s Vietnamese backing and wider Sino-Soviet tensions—were lifted in the 1990s. In the 1980s, limits were placed on ethnic Chinese family businesses, but many Chinese-Cambodians have since formed an allegiance with the CPP in recent years of peace and prosperity.
Sovannary, 56, a garment wholesaler, said she could not speak for younger people, but her peers would most likely cast a vote for continuity.
“One party helped me when I was suffering during the Khmer Rouge, I vote for that one,” she said, without naming the CPP.
“They will remember how we suffered and they never forget that.”
Oum Charanay, 23, working in her aunt’s jewelry shop near O’Russei Market, said her family had been in Cambodia since the early 18th century when they moved from southern China.
She declined to say who she would vote for, but said she would weigh up the options carefully.
“We don’t just think about the campaign but what has happened in the past and [what’s happening] now. Some people say it is slow development, but I think it is worth it, since we had fighting for years,” Ms. Charanay said, crediting the current government’s relationship with China, a huge and growing investment and aid partner, for boosting the Cambodian economy.
“It helps people in general, not just those with Chinese ancestors,” she said.
CNRP candidate Son Chhay said that while a number of Chinese-Cambodian business people may be close to the CPP and have grown extremely wealthy under the party’s rule, the small business owners that make up the majority of the Chinese-Cambodian community would benefit from change.
“They want a better society. If we talk to Chinese, especially businessmen, they want a better system so they can do business without corruption, without intimidation by authorities,” he said, adding that easier access to credit for small businesses would be part of the CNRP’s economic policy.
“They [small businesses] suffer because big business is able to import goods without paying tax,” Mr. Chhay added.
At his kitchen appliance stall in O’Russei Market this week, Lieng Heng, 28, said he was sympathetic to Mr. Chhay’s argument.
“Business is good, but the law is not good,” he said. “The corruption seriously affects business.”
However, he said, he doubted the majority of his fellow Chinese-Cambodians would be willing to risk a change of government.
“This is already the party in power and most of the people vote for them. Their kids have jobs working for the CPP or for the government,” he said.