The experiment in democracy that is modern Cambodia seems to have hit a bump in the road. Actually, if Cambodian democracy were a car, it would be in a rice-field ditch and the villagers (and international observers) smelling smoke. Twenty-five years after the United Nations Transitional Authority ended its stewardship of the country, and despite having a new constitution, years of relatively free elections and billions of dollars in foreign aid, residents are effectively living under single-party rule. The question on people’s minds is what comes next — a tow truck or an explosion.
One interested observer is Sin Rozeth. The 34-year-old former commune chief and once rising political star was given the same choice as other members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party: defect to another party (preferably the ruling Cambodian People’s Party) or get out of politics. Rozeth chose the latter — she opened a dumpling restaurant in her old stomping grounds after the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in November — while looking for a way forward in the face of Cambodia’s increasingly totalitarian environment.
Rozeth opened a restaurant to support her mother … but her accusers say it’s a front for illegal political activities.
Rozeth’s restaurant is near empty when I arrive at 3:00 p.m. It sits off a main road in Battambang, which, despite being Cambodia’s second-largest city, seems sleepy after the bustle of Phnom Penh. She sits down, pours tea for me and a translator, and begins to explain that as a young girl she wanted to be a dancer. Instead, she would follow her mother’s lead.
In the early days of the CNRP, when it was still known as the Sam Rainsy Party (named for a leader of a large faction), Rozeth’s mother was a party loyalist, even working as a cook and janitor at the Battambang office. Sin grew up poor and without a father, she says, so when her mother attended political rallies, she tagged along. At a large protest demanding a recount of election ballots, Sin, then 14 years old, watched as Rainsy told the demonstrators that police would arrest him that night. His courage and commitment made an impact, she says, and that day was the “first step” in her involvement in politics.
Rozeth, like her mother, became a die-hard Sam Rainsy follower, as the country’s once monolithic political arena grew sizable cracks of opposition. Between short bursts of violence — including a grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy rally in 1997 — the opposition gained momentum. In 2012, Rozeth ran on the opposition ticket in 2012 and won a seat as Battambang’s second deputy commune chief. Her office developed a reputation for getting things done — and annoying ruling party officials. As commune chief (the equivalent of local council leader), she eliminated the cost to obtain public documents, such as birth and marriage certificates. That simple service for her constituents earned the scorn of lawmakers who claimed that not charging a minimum fee amounted to procedural misconduct. When Rozeth supported the construction of a drainage system, officials again cited her for failing to comply with regulations. Last year, after being accused of obstructing a court order to transfer land once used for a school to a police chief, Rozeth, accompanied by more than a hundred supporters, marched to the courthouse to receive her summons.
In June 2017, the CNRP won 40 percent of the 1,646 local seats up for election — up from just 2 percent. In response, the authoritarian government of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen cracked down on an energized party that threatened to beat him at elections the following July. The CNRP was slapped with government-orchestrated charges of treason, called a “terrorist” organization despite its commitment to nonviolence, and chose to disband. It was a decision, says Rozeth, that “destroyed not only the party but the people’s will.” As CNRP leadership fled the country to avoid arrest, local officials without the means to move stayed behind.
Rozeth opened a restaurant to support her mother, and to make up for the loss of her meager public salary. But her accusers say it’s a front for illegal political activities. “If this restaurant is used as a place to gather fire, it is really dangerous for Rozeth and it should not be tolerated,” Chheang Vun, a ruling party lawmaker, posted on Facebook. In response to claims that she’s harboring “rebels,” Rozeth hung a banner outside: “Rozeth’s shop welcomes all guests, but not rebels.” The tongue-in-cheek gesture earned her a reprimand by the city governor, who warned that using such language could damage the kingdom’s reputation. Rozeth says she feels threatened by the ongoing harassment, and a group of former CNRP members sent letters to several international bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, seeking help in pressuring the government to stop the “bullying.”
In the short term, at least, one-party rule will continue in Cambodia, says Sophal Ear, professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College. And mounting new opposition will be difficult. ”It’s like razing an old grove forest,” he explains. “You’re not going to get 100-year-old trees. You’ll have young trees, and they’ll be easy to bulldoze if they get too strong.” National elections are scheduled for this summer, and it’s unclear whether CNRP’s former supporters will turn toward another party or abstain from voting, says Sinthay Neb, director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute in Phnom Penh. Whatever happens, he believes the best way forward is for both sides to meet and work together — however unlikely.
For now, Rozeth refuses to give up: “As long as one still has breath, there is still hope for democracy.” She stays busy traveling to villages to perform charity work (this too, she says, is closely monitored). And she helps people who come to her shop, even if it’s only for a good meal.
Before I leave the noodle shop — which has filled with the evening crowd — I take a few photographs of the owner. Other patrons notice and pull out their phones. Seems they all want a selfie with the politician turned restaurateur now under fire.