Noodles of politics in Cambodia


  • ASEAN+
  • Monday, 10 Jun 2019

Make a meal: A vendor preparing baskets loaded with the traditional noodle at a market in Phnom Penh. — AP

PHNOM PENH: The bitter decades- long rivalry between Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman leader, and Sam Rainsy, his self-exiled chief political rival and critic, has sometimes played out in deadly violence. But yesterday, soup rather than blood was likely to be spilled.

The two titans of Cambodian politics, who normally agree over nothing, made stunningly similar calls to their followers this past week.

They said all Cambodians should gather with their neighbours and sit down for a meal of num banh chok, a popular Cambodian rice noodle soup usually consumed at breakfast.

From his prime minister’s perch of unchallenged authority, Hun Sen promoted eating “the Khmer (Cambodian) noodles of unity and solidarity”.

Sam Rainsy, co-founder of the country’s only credible but now disbanded political party, called for “eating Khmer noodles for the sake of friendship in the framework of the entire, giant Cambodian family”.

Both encouraged sharing with folks from the other side of the political fence.

It sounds like a utopian scenario, but its roots are in hard-nosed politics.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, in what was widely seen as a political manoeuvre to ensure victory by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election.

The 118 opposition lawmakers were kicked out of parliament and banned from contesting the polls and any other political activity for five years.

Former party members were left at loose ends. Many of its leaders fled the country, fearing arrest.

Even those in local political positions were booted from their jobs.

Sin Rozeth had been an admired young CNRP commune chief in the northwestern province of Battambang.

Forced out of politics, she opened a shop selling Cambodian noodles.

Her old colleagues would drop by for a meal and chat about politics, and she and others would post their thoughts on Facebook.

Their comments about Sam Rainsy drew the attention of authorities.

A court called in Sin Rozeth and about three dozen colleagues for questioning, citing their noodle soup meals as political gatherings in violation of the Supreme Court ban on political activity.

Matters escalated. Soon, word spread that the former CNRP leaders wanted their party members nationwide to gather where they could yesterday and eat the kind of noodles Sin Rozeth sold in her shop – a novel act of political solidarity.

Hun Sen, known for his prowess in chess, quickly countered, sending word down to his party members that they should also gather yesterday to eat noodle soup: “Please don’t forget to eat Khmer noodles together. These are the Khmer noodles of unity and solidarity, not destructive noodles.”

Effectively coopted, Sam Rainsy said his party had forced Hun Sen’s hand with its bid to make a show of strength.

“Since people eat noodles all over the country, Hun Sen may first accuse them of being opposition supporters, but after seeing such a tide, so many people joining the noodle parties, Hun Sen said no, we cannot stop these noodle parties. If you can’t beat them, join them,” Sam Rainsy said.

Sam Rainsy speculated that the action might improve the political atmosphere.

“I think this may be a good sign. A good start to come to some kind of understanding between the ruling party and the opposition, so that the ruling party becomes more tolerant and accepts the very existence of an opposition,” he added.

However, Hun Sen denied any such prospect.

“Please don’t take what I said to be analysed outside the intention of eating Khmer noodles, as some people think that it is a step toward negotiations (with the CNRP),” Hun Sen said, according to a report in the English-language Phnom Penh Post. — AP


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