More than 14,000 km away from the gleaming white dome atop Capitol Hill in Washington is Phnom Penh, where the names of the two US presidential candidates aren’t exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
“I know one is old and one is young. I am trying to remember their names. I remember the one guy has white hair,” said 25-year-old Bav Ra, a migrant worker in Thailand who was home on vacation Wednesday afternoon, relaxing in Hun Sen park.
“I want the black one. I like him,” said 34-year-old Kaun Pha, who was in his tuk-tuk stationed strategically outside Freebird Bar and Grill on Street 240.
“I see him and I just like him.”
“I remember John McCain is the old one…. I remember my relatives say the black one is good. I’m not sure why,” said Lay Sieng, 58, owner of a newsstand on Street 51.
“Yes, I am interested,” Lay Sieng said of the US election. “But I can’t think which one is better. If Barack Obama or John McCain is good, then maybe they can get more funds for Cambodia,” she added later.
“I know Clinton,” said motorbike taxi driver Khoem Ra, 47. “Clinton won two mandates, and he is a good president.”
Certainly, most Cambodians don’t have the luxury of remaining up to date on US domestic politics, and even among those that do, not everyone cares.
A recent Gallup poll conducted in 70 countries around the world found that Asian citizens are the least likely to state a preference for either US presidential candidate and the least likely to think that the outcome of the US election, which is to be held Nov 4, affects them.
The poll recorded that 86 percent of Cambodians had no preference between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, and 63 percent declined to answer or said they didn’t know how the election would affect them.
Still, the majority of Phnom Penh denizens interviewed Wednesday—even those who fumbled at first for the names of Democratic candidate Obama and Republican McCain—ultimately voiced strong opinions about who they want to win, and how they thought it might have an impact on their life.
For most, it boiled down to the economy and dreams of how a change in Washington might translate to change here in Southeast Asia.
Migrant laborer Bav Ra, who is originally from Kompong Thom province but has been working at a Thai rubber factory for the past three years, said that recently his employers have been having trouble exporting their rubber products—something he attributed to a general economic malaise.
“Yes, I want Obama to win,” he said from a bench in the shade of a peacock tree. “We need to change the party because right now George W Bush is president and the economy has gone down…. McCain is the same party as Bush,” he said.
Motorbike taxi driver Bun Heng Chim, 30, said he has been feeling the burn of inflated gas prices and that it’s important Obama wins so that the US economy can get back on track.
“When I listen to the radio, I think Obama,” he said. “Because people support him a lot in the US and he has good ideas about the economy.”
Venerable Thong Pailin, 40, a monk at Wat Ounalom near the riverside, said he wants Obama in the White House and also pointed to the economy as the reason.
“I want Obama to win the election because we want his party to lead the country,” he said. “The US is powerful…. The US economy is related to the world. If the economy in the US goes down, the economy of Cambodia goes down too,” he added, citing that the majority of Cambodian exports make their way to the US.
Twenty-year-old Sourng Nadyhet, who studies finance at Pannasastra University, said she supports Obama, the man, and what he represents.
“Because of his black skin. All people look down on black skin. So, maybe we can learn more about why people look down like this,” she said.
Chea Kunthea, a 22-year-old cashier at the U-Care pharmacy on the corner of Sothearos Boulevard and Street 178, said she hoped having a black president in the US would help level the playing field for black people.
“I just want Obama to win…. He is the first black candidate, and he is a representative of black people. He is an excellent man,” she said.
Others, like 37-year-old tuk-tuk driver Prum Samrang, said he supports McCain based on the senator’s previous support for Cambodia.
McCain is not unknown to many Cambodians based on his previous vocal support for further investigations into the 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful protest led by SRP President Sam Rainsy, which killed at least 16 and wounded more than 100.
“If John McCain wins, he might help Cambodia…. Though I’ve heard people say John McCain is hopeless,” Prum Samrang said, adding that the electoral process in the US confused him.
“I heard that in the US they have started the election for a long time and still aren’t finished,” he said.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua, who is also a US citizen, said she appreciates McCain’s support for further investigations in what she calls a “black hole” in this country’s history, but that she voted for Obama by absentee ballot because “he represents change.”
She said she hopes Obama would help the US focus on human rights in Cambodia and increase the space for a vocal opposition.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to state a preference, saying that he would send a note of good wishes to whomever won.
Monivann Tann, deputy director of Cambodian conglomerate Mong Reththy Group, said he thinks McCain is losing support because of his connection to Bush and the US’ ongoing military operations in the Middle East.
“US people are maybe afraid McCain would send more soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan when he becomes president,” he said, adding that he didn’t think the outcome one way or another would have a big impact on Cambodia.
“The election will not affect Cambodia because Cambodia is a small country. The US never talks about Cambodia because it has no benefit to the US,” he said.
Former Center for Social Development president Chea Vannath, who also voted for Obama in her capacity as a US citizen, said she thinks Obama’s mixed cultural background allows him a valuable and nuanced perspective that could lead to real change.
“When he looks at something, he always has more than one perspective,” she said, before adding that she thinks the impact on Cambodia will be slim to none either way.
“It doesn’t matter who is in the White House. Cambodia is far, far away…. Even John McCain, he knows well Cambodia, but I doubt if he is in the White House he will do something special or specific for Cambodia,” she said.
“Unless Cambodia is a first-world oil producer, then things might be different.”