Shaking hands of passers-by on bicycles, waving to old ladies sitting on their front porches and greeting workers outside hardware stores, it’s clear while wandering through the bustling back passages of Phnom Penh’s O’Russei I commune that Chy Sokhal is a popular man.
It was this popularity that resulted in him being elected as a deputy commune chief here in June, less than a year after the 64-year-old former civil servant decided to enter politics on behalf of the country’s only major opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
"I joined politics because, first, I hate dictatorship, and second, I have seen that Cambodian society appears to be led by Cambodian people but actually it’s under control of foreign countries," Sokhal said inside his cramped front room.
These calls for greater democracy and vows to cleanse the country of corruption, blended with populist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, led to the CNRP unexpectedly winning 44 percent of the vote at the 2013 general election despite familiar accusations of intimidation and vote-rigging against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Despite then-CNRP leader Sam Rainsy living in exile throughout 2016 and his deputy Kem Sokha being under effective house arrest for a large chunk of the year to avoid arrest in a case widely branded as politically motivated, a royal pardon for Kem Sokha meant the clocks turned into 2017 with many Cambodians hoping that perhaps a corner had been turned with it.
By the end of the year, those hopes would lie in ruins.
In February, the CNRP boycotted the National Assembly as the ruling party passed changes to a law that gave the government and courts sweeping new powers to suspend and dissolve any party over vaguely worded offenses. Sam Rainsy stepped down as CNRP president to prevent his multiple convictions - also widely labeled as politically motivated - putting the party in jeopardy.
June’s commune elections came and record numbers - around 90 percent - traveled to polling booths to cast their ballot, with the CNRP picking up more than 43 percent of the vote and 489 of 1,646 commune chief positions.
Despite winning a role as second deputy commune chief, Chy Sokhal said the election was still heavily marred by intimidation on behalf of the ruling party in his commune, including the banning of photos of opposition candidates.
"They were always taking photos of me and we weren’t allowed to say anything about things like illegal logging or deforestation," Chy Sokhal said. "These were not free and fair."
Others took hope from the election, which was freer and fairer than many expected, including veteran political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
"The turnout for the latest commune elections - 90 percent cast their votes, that’s something. I was so happy and so proud," he said in a Phnom Penh cafe last week.
But come September, any hopes that Cambodia’s path to democracy was back on course appeared to be over.
In the dead of night, hundreds of armed police raided Kem Sokha’s Phnom Penh home, with Hun Sen accusing his rival of attempting to overthrow the government with the assistance of the US. In its final paper, The Cambodia Daily, which closed over a disputed tax bill amid an assault on independent media which has resulted in the shuttering of critical outlets, ran the headline "Descent Into Outright Dictatorship."
That descent continued the following month, when Hun Sen said it was "a fact" that the CNRP would be dissolved. Those threats were put into action in November, as the Supreme Court outlawed the only realistic threat to Hun Sen’s grip on power. It also banned 118 senior opposition officials from politics for five years and ordered the reallocation of the party’s National Assembly and commune seats.
Sokhal’s brief career in opposition politics appeared to be over.
"I felt very shocked, our party was illegally demolished," he said. "The people felt very hurt and frustrated with this act carried out by the CPP and Hun Sen, not just in my commune, but the 3 million supporters across the country."
Kirt Chanthou, a 63-year-old vendor sitting near Sokhal’s home who voted CNRP in the national and commune elections, said she had been saddened by the disintegration of democracy in 2017.
"I feel very sorry and worried. I’m afraid we will become a communist country," she said.
"It’s just accusations without proof. The intention was just to dissolve the CNRP ... because if they had let the CNRP be, they would have overtaken them in the election," she added.
Asked about the feelings of those in his commune over the events of the past year, Chea Sophin, the CPP commune chief in O’Russei I, remained tight-lipped.
"When the election came, they went to vote but when there is a problem like this, they do not say anything. They are worried about their personal security ... they do not want their lives to be affected," he said.
Asked for his opinion on the decision to dissolve the CNRP, the ruling party official declined to answer fully.
"It’s up to the superiors, I am just a small person," he replied.
Analyst Lao Mong Hay, who once served as a legal advisor to the CNRP, said dissolution of the party would have been "unimaginable" at the turn of the year.
That said, Hun Sen was once again showing behavior typical to that of a tyrant with a win-at-any-cost attitude.
"Jailing opponents? Quite understandable when a strongman has all the characteristics of a tyrant in the ancient sense. If you were to re-read Aristotle’s Politics, the tyrant’s strategy is to hold on to power. Consolidate … simply eliminate," Lao Mong Hay said.
"The two racers were neck and neck and the one fearing they would lose the race, tripped his competitor. There you are."
Back in O’Russei I, deposed opposition councilor Sokhal said he held out hope that international pressure could push Hun Sen to find a "political solution." Both the United States and the European Union have since suspended all support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee, calling credible elections next year impossible following the dissolution of Hun Sen’s only viable contender.
However, when asked to elaborate on how a solution would look, Chy Sokhal said he "wasn’t sure." He later called a reporter claiming that plain-clothes police started patrolling outside his house soon after UCAN had left.
CPP commune chief Chea Sophin remained quiet when asked his opinion on the labeling of 2017 as the year the dream of democracy died in Cambodia.
"This is [the international community’s] understanding," he said.
"I do not know what to say because I also do not dare to say."
(Additional reporting by Ouch Sony)