Tue, Jun 11, 2019 - Page 5 News List

For Cambodians, a bowl of noodles becomes political

AP, PHNOM PENH

People eat noodles at a temple in Phnom Penh on Sunday at an event organized by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

Photo: AFP

The bitter rivalry between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his self-exiled main political rival, Sam Rainsy, has sometimes played out in deadly violence — but on Sunday, soup rather than blood was likely to be spilled.

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

Both said all Cambodians should gather with their neighbors on Sunday and sit for a meal of num banh chok, a popular rice noodle soup usually eaten at breakfast.

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

Rainsy, cofounder of the nation’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 the meal with people from the other side of the political fence.

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

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

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

Former CNRP 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 Battambang Province. 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 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 contravention of the Supreme Court ban on political activity.

Matters escalated.

According to Human Rights Watch, authorities this year have issued at least 147 arbitrary court and police summonses against members or supporters of the CHRP.

“Summons seen by Human Rights Watch lacked legal specifics, containing only vague references to allegations that the person summoned may have violated the Supreme Court ruling that dissolved the CNRP in November 2017,” the rights group said.

Soon, word spread that the former CNRP leaders wanted their party members to gather where they could on Sunday 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 on Sunday 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.”

He also suggested that the activity could launch a campaign to promote Cambodian food and culture.

Effectively co-opted, Rainsy, interviewed in Paris, 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,’” Rainsy said.

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