Sunday, July 27, 2008

On The Road to Kep, Politics is Just Another Obstacle to Circumvent

My Zimbio
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July 24, 2008 Somewhere Between Phnom Penh and Kep, Cambodia

We are careening down a one lane country road with our horn blaring. The middle-aged driver we hired to take us to Kep, a small resort town in Southern Cambodia, is simply alerting others on the road that we are coming through. It's the way car travel in Cambodia unfolds. An endless sea of horns and no one flinches. I am in the front seat white knuckling the arm rest as we whisk past motorbikes, busses, trucks, cyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional oxen cart in a prolonged blur. My friend Susan, an expat International NGO Consultant, sits in the back seat completely relaxed. 'It's fun to come this way with someone who has never been here before she says...I see the things around me like new all over again.'

To Susan it has become completely normal to see a family of six on a motorbike or a chicken truck on the way to market with live poultry tied to every useable surface including the hood. It is also typical to see a van bursting at the seams with people and eight more sitting on the roof clutching the luggage rack as the wind races through their hair. Expressionless, our driver leans on the horn again as we nearly mow down an elderly woman with a 50 pound bag of rice on her head. How much longer I ask? Susan checks her watch casually--another two-and-half hours or so she replies enjoying every minute. I realize we've only been on the road about twenty minutes so far. This is going to be a long trip.

I decide it's time to refocus my attention and worry less about the road. I cinch my seatbelt a bit tighter and shift slightly in my seat so I can see Susan in the back seat. I begin to engage her in conversation about her life in Cambodia and do my best to ignore the ongoing intermittent siren of our horn as we weave in and out of traffic. Nobody else seems to mind, so why should I?

We talk about the Cambodian Government as tomorrow is election day. I learn that the current Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for nearly thirty years and looks to have things pretty much sewn up for another five. Although there are opposing parties running for government seats, Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples Party seems to have orchestrated a commanding lead with votes ordained to go his way. It helps of course that he recently changed the required 2/3 majority rule to a 50% plus 1 majority policy. This apparently was necessary after a previous election ended in his earning less than the required 2/3 majority and Hun Sen had to resort to violence to remain in power. Cambodian politics is complicated to say the least and I struggle to understand as Susan patiently explains.

At that moment, I feel a lurch to the left. I look up. We have actually come upon Hun Sen's election convoy headed for a country side rally. At least twenty vehicles decked out with loudspeakers, blue flags and white capped citizens with matching Cambodian People's Party logo shirts crammed on the back of flat bed trucks. There seems to be another fifteen or so security SUV's with blacked out windows in the procession-- one of these is said to contain Hun Sen himself. Now I realize that the lurch I felt a moment ago was our steely-eyed driver maneuvering to the wrong side of the road, horn wailing as we sail past the entire convoy.

I stop talking and face front not believing my eyes. I catch a glimpse of Susan in the rear view mirror. She flashes a reassuring smile and settles back. I keep my attention on the road. We should be in Kep in about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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