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Cambodians to vote in election — widely seen as a sham — and extend rule of Hun Sen

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Cambodians vote Sunday in an election that's been widely dismissed as a sham, one that will extend the 38-year rule of Hun Sen and set the stage for a dynastic succession to his son. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Phnom Penh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's about 9 o'clock in the morning. I'm driving in from the airport, and this is my first trip back pretty much since the pandemic. I used to come here a lot, and I have to say this place really seems to have changed in the last couple of years. There's a lot more economic activity here. On the flight in, I noticed a lot more new high-rise buildings on both sides of the river. Phnom Penh is clearly a vibrant city. What's not so vibrant is the state of Cambodia's democratic opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: In February, Hun Sen's government shuttered one of the last independent media outlets, The Voice of Democracy, for allegedly slandering his son in one of its reports. And in May, the main opposition Candle Light Party was disqualified from running in Sunday's election, ostensibly for not filing the required documents - documents the party claimed had been seized by the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER HUN SEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: They didn't lose the papers, Hun Sen said. They just didn't want to take part in the election because they knew they were going to lose - claiming the party was just trying to get the international community to come to their aid.

MONOVITHYA KEM: This so-called election will be exactly like the one in 2018 after the regime arrested the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, my father, and dissolved the only viable opposition party, the CNRP. It will be a sham process completely without any opposition competition at all.

SULLIVAN: That's Monovithya Kem of the dissolved CNRP, the precursor to the Candle Light Party. In March, her father was convicted on treason charges widely condemned by the international community. Sentenced to 27 years in prison, he's serving his time for now under house arrest because of ill health.

KEM: He's not allowed to speak. He's not allowed to communicate with anyone at all outside of immediate family members. And this house arrest situation is not clearly defined in the verdict. And it's actually not official, meaning that he could be sent back to prison at any day.

SULLIVAN: None of this surprises Virak Ou, who heads the public policy group Future Forum. He says the goal in the run-up to the election is simple.

VIRAK OU: The need to protect power and legitimacy. And then therefore, that mandate could be then passed on to the son, the next person in line.

SULLIVAN: Hun Sen argues, not without merit, that the once-war-ravaged country has prospered during his time in office with a GDP that's grown about 7% a year for the past several decades. But that economic growth has been uneven, and COVID didn't help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN: Tourism and the garment industry are Cambodia's two biggest earners. But tourists like these, in a waterfront hotel, are still in short supply, and garment orders have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. And remember all that construction I talked about on the way in? It's not all that it seems.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY CLICKING)

SULLIVAN: This new bridge will connect to a new island built in the middle of the Mekong River. Some of the new high-rises are almost finished, adding to a glut all over the city. Virak Ou.

OU: Most of the construction is actually Chinese money. And how do they get these money? It's questionable. Much more of this money might not even be completely legal or legit or supported by Beijing. That's why we have a lot of empty finished buildings and a lot of unfinished buildings also in Sihanoukville and even in Phnom Penh. And that's going to be bad for the country. And there's a complete mismatch of empty buildings and people needing simple homes to live in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWNMOWER WHIRRING)

SULLIVAN: Alongside Phnom Penh's pristine riverfront, a worker trims the grass as people stroll the promenade. I ask a few people how they feel about Sunday's election. Sixty-five-year-old Hong Thany is selling quail and duck eggs to passersby.

HONG THANY: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "Hun Sen is a king, and he supports us poor people," she says, "so I'm grateful to him and will vote for him." A snack vendor nearby who didn't want to give his name for fear of retribution was far less charitable.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "I'll vote," he says. "But to me it's meaningless, and a lot of people think the same. We're supposed to be a democracy. Instead," he says, "we're a one-party state that's becoming increasingly isolated internationally."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: But Hun Sen still has China and is Beijing's closest ally in the region, one he's reportedly allowed to expand and improve a Cambodian naval base in the south of the country not far from the South China Sea. It's not clear if his son Hun Manet, the heir apparent and a West Point graduate, might someday temper Cambodia's tilt toward Beijing or even allow more space to his political opponents. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Phnom Penh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.