Hot tears coursed down my face, I ran my sleeve over them, soaking up my tears of happiness. “Change! Change! Change!” The chorus continued. All around me, as far as I could see, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Cambodians marched, rode their motorcycles, sat in tuktuks and bounced around on trucks. Bald monks in orange robes, teens in white and blue, adults in their work clothes, all united for one thing. Change!
“We want a real democracy,” someone shouted. Cambodia is not a democracy. Sure there have been elections for the past 20 years, but the ruling party has done everything it could, both legal and illegal, to stay in power. I once spent two years of my life in Cambodia, and during that time I had resigned my revolutionary tendencies. Cambodia deserved freedom, but its people were too beaten by the experience of genocide and 40 years of civil war. Even in this election, Hun Sen, the dictator who ruled for 34 years, professed doom and destruction if he wasn’t reelected. He had said that change was bad, that the civil war and genocide were change, and asked the people if they truly wanted that kind of change.
The marchers streamed down the road, moving around motorbikes and tuktuks, cars and trucks. They carried signs and chanted, “change or no change? Change!”
In past elections people were never so vocal. Experience had taught them bad things come with elections: disappearances, civil disorder, deaths, explosions, and absolutely no change. Now something was different, where once people were afraid to speak out against the dictatorship, they were now shouting and joking. “Hun Sen is a dog, give him back to the Vietnamese and let them eat him.” A single toothed old man joked with me. “Hun Sen is the leader of a gang of thieves, he is one of the richest men in the world, and he got that way from stealing from the poorest,” shouted a teenage girl still wearing her high school uniform. “We cannot live in a dictatorship that holds back my people, that hurts us and keeps corruption alive,” an elderly business woman explained. “We want change, and we are voting for change” Buddist monks told me with confidence. They all united, to do one thing, remove the ruling party in the upcoming election.
The stream raged by me, the street flooded with hopeful people, people who wanted change, people who knew that they could win the election but that even if they did the ruling party would fight to stay in control.
The vote came in and the ruling party claimed it won. The opposition claim massive voting irregularities and that they won. It’s been 4 weeks since that day. Now tanks and armored troop transports have rolled into the city, and jeeps full of armed troops patrol the evenings. Police, which are normally as hidden as a shadow at noon, cover every street corner. Barricades crisscrossed with razor wire block areas around police stations and my friends tell me to leave the city. “This will get bad” one says and turn her hand into a gun “pow, pow” she takes aim at me.
Violence might or might not erupt, the people might not get the change they want, but they already know that they have won. They know they have changed themselves, they have changed as a people, they know they can have freedom, and that someday they will be free, that Cambodia will be free.
I asked a very round, middle aged business woman if she still wanted change she told me “I want change but I don’t want a new Cambodia, I want a new country, I want the Ankor republic.”
Update 2: Riots are burning across Phnom Penh, but a revolution, it is not.