As mobile rallies of the ruling CPP and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have passed each other on the streets during the lead-up to Sunday’s election, their confrontations could be taken from the script of “West Side Story.”
Like the Jets and the Sharks in the Broadway stage play, the young CPP and CNRP supporters have traded little more than jeers and insults as they cross paths on motorcycles, carrying party flags and posters.
While the insults can be cutting, the rhetoric has not escalated to violence, which is a wide departure from the political culture of an older generation, campaigners and an election monitor said Monday.
“Fun yet difficult,” was how Ti Meng, 19, a CPP supporter stationed at Wat Phnom, said he found campaigning for the ruling party.
Mr. Meng said he enjoyed driving around the city and engaging the CNRP youths in shout-offs: Yelling “Change!” and “No change!” and “Number four!” and “Number seven!” is “sort of fun,” Mr. Meng said, referring to the numbers that each party is marked on the voting ballot.
“But sometimes, they can be rude as well, like when they call us Yuon [a term considered derogatory to describe Vietnamese nationals] even though they know we’re Khmer. I get a bit upset over that,” he said, though he added that he never feels any sense of physical threat during such close-quarter confrontations.
CNRP campaigner Phat Dina, 21, said in his experience of campaigning over the past weeks, the only blows either side has ever come to is flinging water bottles at each other.
“Sometimes, I do get a bit scared,” he admitted, adding that the CNRP campaigners have started waving money at the CPP campaigners to taunt them for being corrupt. “And they [the CPP] would shout at us and say that we are people with no brains.”
On Sunday, CNRP campaigners near Wat Botum park waved fists of riel notes and dollar bills at a passing convoy of CPP campaigners—a reference to rumors that the CPP supporters were all paid to campaign. The CPP supporters looked irate, but moved on after only verbal retorts in response to the CNRP taunts.
It is acts like these that amazed 67-year-old CPP supporter Chum Sambath, who said Monday that election campaigning is “so much better” than in years past.
“Before, there was more violence. It’s because the young people have a better understanding now, and violence happens when people are illiterate,” Mr. Sambath said.
The obvious lack of fear or violence among the youth campaigners is not due to education, or even their bravery, it’s because they have grown up in a time without the political violence of the past, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“They don’t know the evolution of politics in Cambodia…. They’ve heard of [the killing fields and Khmer Rouge regime], they’ve learned it, but they have not experienced these situations,” he said.
“That’s why they are not fearful, and they don’t feel like there should be violence.”