Election Observers

When U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks, something in Sok Keo Chakriya stirs.

“It’s so hard to explain how I feel, but every time I hear Donald Trump speak about making America great again, I feel it in my heart,” Ms. Chakriya said on a recent afternoon at Brown Coffee on Street 214 in Phnom Penh.

Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with Hilary Clinton in Cambodia in 2010. (Reuters)
Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with Hilary Clinton in Cambodia in 2010. (Reuters)

Current U.S. President Barack Obama has been disappointment to Ms. Chakriya, who is married to a U.S. citizen.

“That one? You want me to tell the truth? I don’t like him at all,” said the 34-year-old housewife. “It is not fair that he takes the money from the employed and gives it to the unemployed.”

As the U.S. enters the final stretch of a particularly theatrical campaign period, Cambodians like Ms. Chakriya have watched with amusement, envy and fear as Americans choose their next leader.

American voters face a choice between Mr. Trump’s brash, jocular brand of populism and Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s comparatively conventional but scandal-marred campaign. Cambodians will face the foreign policy consequences of the choice.

The point has not been lost on Prime Minister Hun Sen. At an award ceremony last weekend for a youth program, the premier, who has held power for over 30 years, took one of his customary rhetorical detours to praise Mr. Trump’s isolationism.

“The thing I found interesting is that Trump is going to make America great again.” - Sok Keo Chakriya, 34, housewife
“The thing I found interesting is that Trump is going to make America great again.”
– Sok Keo Chakriya, 34, housewife

“Now even Donald Trump, who is the candidate for the Republican Party, has also come out to claim that it was a mistake to topple Saddam Hussein by killing him,” the prime minister told the crowd, saying the episode typified disastrous foreign interventions against long-standing regimes.

Mr. Hun Sen has not endorsed a candidate, while opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he was leaving his options open.

“As CNRP president I entertain good relations with, and am grateful to, all American parties or groups that support democracy in Cambodia,” Mr. Rainsy wrote in an email on Wednesday.

CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay was more blunt. He said he walked away from a meeting with then-Secretary of State Clinton on her 2012 visit to Cambodia with an impression that she was worldly and well-spoken.

“Hillary Clinton is a woman that makes other women proud." - Bun Thida, 33, high school teacher
“Hillary Clinton is a woman that makes other women proud.”
– Bun Thida, 33, high school teacher

“She is familiar with a lot of the issues around the world,” Mr. Chhay said on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, “talks a lot of bullshit,” Mr. Chhay said. “It’s really scary when someone comes up with all these ideas that don’t reflect reality.”

In a rare show of unity between the ruling and opposition parties, Ahmad Yahya, a CPP secretary of state at the Social Affairs Ministry who is also a U.S. citizen, voiced discomfort with Mr. Trump, saying that “all six votes in my family will go to Hillary.”

“Trump is not a politician,” said Mr. Yahya, a prominent member of Cambodia’s Cham Muslim community. “The businessmen—they cheat here, they cheat there, they only want to make money. [Trump] behaves like a monkey.”

Such sentiments were widespread in Phnom Penh this week. The city’s election watchers—tuk-tuk drivers, primary school teachers, security guards—mostly said they were rallying behind Ms. Clinton’s diplomatic experience and trailblazing path as the first female presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.

“People nowadays want to have a woman as a leader.” - Soth Pinor, 26, security guard
“People nowadays want to have a woman as a leader.”
– Soth Pinor, 26, security guard

“Hillary Clinton is a woman that makes other women proud,” said Bun Thida, a 33-year-old high school teacher who joined Ms. Chakriya for lunch at Brown. “It’s so rare that a woman can get this kind of job.”

Ms. Thida wants that kind of job. But she sees many societal obstacles between her current position and her dreams of someday becoming Her Excellency Bun Thida, Minister of Education.

“In a society where only men hold higher positions and there’s no women holding higher positions, that’s something that should be fixed,” Ms. Thida said.

Ol Kanika, a 33-year-old finance official at a consultancy firm, echoed that sentiment.

“I want a woman to be president,” Ms. Kanika said between bites of rice at Sbov Meas restaurant. Be it in the U.S. or Cambodia, a woman head of state “will understand other women better” at a moment when “men seem to be more powerful in society.”

Men, too, said they respected Ms. Clinton’s glass ceiling-shattering trajectory.

Soth Pinor took a break parking customers’ cars outside Monument Books to praise the way Ms. Clinton has “empowered women.”

“I want people to respect each other,” the 26-year-old said over the roar of rush hour on Norodom Boulevard. “Women are the mothers of the world.”

“I think Trump is very serious, and if he is elected he would just cause a lot of war.” - Ou Chandy, 37, vegetable wholesaler
“I think Trump is very serious, and if he is elected he would just cause a lot of war.”
– Ou Chandy, 37, vegetable wholesaler

Ms. Clinton has a Cambodian counterpart in opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, according to Mr. Pinor.

“She is fighting for Cambodian people,” he said.

For her part, Ms. Sochua—a dual citizen who was educated in the U.S.—said in an email that she planned on voting on November 6 for the candidate “who has extensive experience in foreign affairs” and who is “committed to the human rights of women.”

Though Mr. Trump boasted in a debate last year that he had built a “a phenomenal business with incredible, iconic assets,” 37-year-old vegetable wholesaler Ou Chandy was not convinced those skills translated to running a government.

“Since Trump is a businessman, he only thinks about profit and loss,” Mr. Chandy said.

The businessman said he had fond memories of the presidency of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

It was “a golden era,” Mr. Chandy said wistfully. “His wife can do as well.”

“Trump said that when he becomes president, if someone steps on him with one foot, he’s going to step on them with two.” - Sar Pros, 46, security guard
“Trump said that when he becomes president, if someone steps on him with one foot, he’s going to step on them with two.”
– Sar Pros, 46, security guard

For 46-year-old security guard Sar Pros, however, Mr. Trump’s business background is central to his appeal.

“From what I heard on the radio, Trump is really good,” Mr. Pros said. “I like him because he is a millionaire in Hawaii.”

“If Trump becomes president, he wouldn’t become corrupt because he is already a millionaire,” Mr. Pros added. “Ask Trump to send me some money!”

Back at Brown Coffee, 17-year-old Kong Sothkim said the American election process—however dramatic its ups and downs—could serve as an example to Cambodia.

“In the U.S., I think they change the leader every ten years,” Sothkim said. (The U.S. in fact caps presidential terms at eight years, and holds presidential elections every four.)

“I heard that people want Barack Obama to be president for longer.” - Kong Sothkim, 17, student
“I heard that people want Barack Obama to be president for longer.”
– Kong Sothkim, 17, student

“In Cambodia, there’s no rule that the president should be changed every ten years,” she continued. “If one person controls the country every year, I can say that there’s no development.”

Not every Cambodian is invested in the outcome of an election happening half a world away.

Teng Poliza, 16, curled up on a sofa nearby, said she cared “about my study and my future.”

The aspiring furniture store owner said she instead followed more melodic Americans.

“I like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Taylor [Swift] and Charlie Puth,” Poliza said, rattling off the U.S.’ latests pop exports.

“I don’t care about politics. I just care about my studies and my future.” - Teng Poliza, 16, student
“I don’t care about politics. I just care about my studies and my future.”
– Teng Poliza, 16, student

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