Why you should care

Because Yang Saing Koma could represent the last train for democracy.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, OZY is profiling opposition figures around the globe taking risks in the fight for social justice. Here is a previous installment on Brazil’s Celso Athayde.

Sitting in a dim office of the Grassroots Democracy Party, behind an “organic” restaurant in Phnom Penh, Yang Saing Koma explains how in 1997, during his nongovernmental organization days, he helped his first farmer. The farmer ascribed to the widespread, yet mistaken, belief that to best grow rice one should plant many rice seeds together and flood the soil.

But this isn’t so, explains the agriculture Ph.D.–turned–opposition political candidate. To maximize yield a farmer should spread out the rice, plant the seeds farther apart and only dampen the dirt. But first you need a farmer to try it. Then, when the community sees the result, they’ll follow. “You need to get a leader,” Saing Koma says. “And there’s always risks associated with change. So you need people who are ready to take the risks.”

Saing Koma is trying to grow a movement from far tougher soil as his party’s candidate for prime minister in Cambodia’s national elections on Sunday. Last year, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dissolved the largest opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on trumped-up charges. Their leaders are largely in jail or exile. A prominent government critic in Saing Koma’s own party was gunned down in broad daylight. Independent media outlets have been silenced. With Cambodian democracy increasingly looking like a rigged game, Saing Koma has decided to play along and keep campaigning against strongman Hun Sen, who has been in power effectively since 1985. But where some see a democratic fight, others see futility — like too many rice stalks planted too close together.

Without a real and strong opposition to channel the popular discontent in a peaceful way … there is a serious risk of violence and instability in Cambodia.

Mu Sochua, opposition politician

“This July 29 election is a fake poll, a sham. There can be no legitimate government as a result of such an electoral farce,” says CNRP vice president Mu Sochua, who resides in Thailand after threats of arrest. Her party has called for a boycott so as not to legitimize the Cambodian ruling government. “There can be no real election without the participation of the only credible opposition party,” she says. A number of so-called firefly parties have flickered into existence just in time for the election. Critics believe they are supported by the government in an effort to legitimize the vote. Saing Koma’s Grassroots Democracy Party, though, is seen as one of the few legitimate challengers. He says he largely agrees with the assessment of Mu Sochua, but not the remedy. “It’s not fair. But what else can you do?” he says.

It’s understandable why Saing Koma, 52, can remain optimistic. He talks in a quiet voice, occasionally removing his glasses and bouncing his knees, about how fast change can come. He survived Americans bombing his village during the Vietnam War and the threat of execution from the genocidal Khmer Rouge, to end up in East Germany in 1984 studying “scientific communism” (he was later allowed to switch to the more useful, he figured, study of agriculture). Every Monday, Saing Koma would join student demonstrations in Leipzig as the Stasi looked on. And he was there when the Berlin Wall suddenly fell in 1989. His friends fled to West Germany while he stayed to finish his studies. Although now everything was different: He could read foreign press and travel, and he didn’t have to wait in line for a new music record.

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Yang Saing Koma (left), president of Cambodia’s Grassroots Democratic Party, leads a rally to mark the second anniversary of the 2016 murder of a prominent government critic, Kem Ley, a member of the Grassroots Democratic Party.

Source Samrang Pring/Reuters

He went on to start the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), with assistance from France. With his NGO he visited small farmers across the country, teaching simple farming techniques and how to form savings associations. Some of those farmers, he says, later joined him in politics. During his time at CEDAC he got into opposition politics and befriended a political commentator named Kem Ley.

When Ley returned from a visit to Australia in 2016, Saing Koma says they met over dinner and discussed creating a legal fund in case one of them had trouble with the government. They had advised Kem Sokha, an opposition leader now jailed over charges of treason, before starting the Grassroots Democracy Party together. “We were thinking only up to prison,” Saing Koma says. Instead, Ley was gunned down outside a convenience store. Although a man claiming Ley owed him $3,000 was convicted of the murder, his story was full of holes and the shooting came days after Ley had criticized Hun Sen’s family for corruption. “It was beyond our imagination,” says Saing Koma, raising his hands to his face. “But it gave me more motivation.”

So how does Saing Koma hope to avoid the fate of the more popular and now-disbanded CNRP? “We are completely different from the old guys,” he says. The Grassroots Democracy Party won’t focus on “confrontational politics” and the cults of personality popular in Cambodia. In this office, stacked against one wall, are hundreds of green booklets laying out their practical policies: term limits, natural resources management, defense. But it’s going to take more than policy briefs for the new group to gain steam.

Saing Koma finds hope, again, in that “millions of people are upset with” the disbanding of the opposition. Recent reports say the CPP has given around $3.5 million in 10 months to garment workers at rallies, vote buying so rampant it has to be a sign of desperation, Saing Koma argues. He thinks the government would be making a gamble — although one they’ve made before quite successfully — by disbanding his party in the future. Khmer people are silent now, he says, but they won’t be pushed around forever. Or as Mu Sochua puts it: “Without a real and strong opposition to channel the popular discontent in a peaceful way … there is a serious risk of violence and instability in Cambodia.”

Sophal Ear, a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, doesn’t predict the Grassroots Democracy Party will make huge gains — as it won only five out of 11,572 commune councils in 2017. “With CNRP gone, it will do better, but make no mistake: This election is a naked attempt at legitimizing the misrule of the CPP,” Sophal says. “Fake democracy is what we’re looking at.”

Saing Koma remains undeterred. Even a sham vote, in his mind, could be a seedling of progress worth nurturing.

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