The 4,040kg rice cake's role in Cambodian politics

A 4,040kg rice cake being paraded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2015.
A 4,040kg rice cake being paraded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2015.PHOTO: NYTIMES

PHNOM PENH (NYTIMES) - First came the 4,040kg sticky-rice cake, stuffed with mung beans and pork belly, displayed at Angkor Wat and heralded as "officially amazing" by Guinness World Records.

Then, in rapid succession, came a series of record-setting feats: The largest-ever performance of Madison dancing, with 2,015 participants. The world's longest scarf (1,149.8m),woven over the course of six months and paraded through the streets of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

And in November, the world's longest dragon boat (87.3m) was launched into the Mekong River and rowed by 179 oarsmen.

While this streak of oddball achievements might seem unconnected, they are all part of Prime Minister Hun Sen's push to get young people excited about his ageing regime, which he appears to consider essential to maintaining his grip on power.

"The government's intentions here are rather transparent: They want to create images of visible enthusiasm for the nation and its leadership," said Dr Katrin Travouillon, a scholar of Cambodian politics at Australian National University.

The initial salvo in this campaign was the rice-and-pork colossus, unveiled at Angkor Wat in 2015, and touted as a modern-day marvel by the authoritarian Hun Sen, now 66, and his son, Mr Hun Many, 36, who hatched the idea as a showcase project for his new pro-government youth group.

Crowds cheered as a representative from Guinness World Records certified that the rice cake would take its place in the record book alongside Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious structure and a source of enduring national pride.

"I am proud to be a child of Cambodia, and today we have achieved a giant sticky-rice cake, and the world will acknowledge that from now on," Mr Hun Many said in a triumphant speech at the event.

Two-thirds of Cambodia's population is under 30, with no memory of the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule in the 1970s, or the long years of civil war that followed. Many are weary of their country's international reputation for genocide and political dysfunction.

So the country's young are less susceptible to Mr Hun Sen's traditional message that his party's leaders are national heroes, deserving perpetual legitimacy because of the role they played helping to oust the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979.

The point was driven home to Mr Hun Sen in emphatic fashion in 2013, after a near loss to an insurgent political party in an election that year. He has spent the past half-decade ramping up his efforts to appeal to the nation's young.

"The CPP has to have recognised by now that a national identity forged on victimhood and gratitude is difficult to reconcile with the ideas and aspirations of the younger generation," Dr Travouillon said, referring to the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

The new narrative emphasises self-sufficiency and national pride, with Mr Hun Sen publicly thumbing his nose at the Western donors who have poured billions of dollars of aid into the country.

A critical plank of this project has been a revival of the country's youth corps, headed by Mr Hun Sen's youngest and most affable son, Mr Hun Many. Officially, it is nonpartisan; in practice, its activities support the ruling party.

At a gathering of the youth corps in November, Mr Hun Many urged participants to continue garnering world records.

Mr Kim Sok, a political commentator who fled the country last year after serving a jail term for criticising the prime minister, has spoken out against the flurry of record attempts.

He said in an interview from Finland, where he has been granted asylum, that he could not understand why Guinness would certify records obtained by agents of authoritarian governments.

"They have people, power and money, and just order the people to spend the money to get a certificate from Guinness World Records and then use this as propaganda," he said.

"I think this certificate mocks the whole nation."

Ms Rachel Gluck, a spokesman for Guinness World Records, said the organisation made "every effort possible to remain politically neutral" and required applicants to "meet our core values of integrity, respect, inclusiveness and passion". Mr Hun Many declined requests for an interview about his record-seeking quests.

But in a speech responding to criticisms of his giant cake, scarf and boat as wasteful, he defended the pursuit of records as crucial for promoting Cambodian spirit, at home and abroad.

"What did we do it for? " he said. "It's for our flag waving in the world, and there is only one Cambodian flag."

Dr Travouillon said the rhetoric surrounding these projects was revealing for its focus on unity and cooperation.

The giant scarf was heavily promoted in a media campaign targeting university students, who were encouraged to try their hand at weaving a few strands in the name of national solidarity.

The sticky-rice cake was produced after months of divisive street protests and a parliamentary boycott over the results of the 2013 election.

At the cake's unveiling, Mr Hun Many proclaimed it had been achieved only through "a singular spirit". His father then approached the gargantuan snack alongside Mr Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, who had run in 2013 on a change-oriented political platform that struck a chord with young people. The men ceremonially cut the rice with a sword, each took a bite and proclaimed a rapprochement.

But even epic cakes have their limits in bridging yawning political divides. After a short period of collaboration, Mr Hun Sen began a series of lawsuits against Mr Sam Rainsy that drove him from Cambodia.

The prime minister later declared the entire opposition party illegal, jailed many politicians and activists, and, without any real competition, won the 2018 national election in a landslide.

Mr Kim Sok said the sticky-rice cake and other monumental totems of power were depressing reminders of Mr Hun Sen's authoritarian reach.

They were also silly, he added.

"What is the innovation?" he asked of the rice cake. "It's just making it bigger than normal. Do you think this is talent? Is it a great idea for the nation?"

Although older Cambodians seemed sceptical, several young people said the world records resonated with them.

"I think it's amazing," said Ms Man Nisa, a soft-spoken 19-year-old who had ducked out of her university to pick up a new K-pop album she had ordered from a deliveryman on a motorbike. "I have never seen such achievements."

But the deliveryman, Mr Yin Hong, 35, a migrant from the countryside, disagreed.

"I think it's nonsense!" he exclaimed. "It's a waste of money and doesn't create jobs for anyone."

He added: "Other countries don't even make sticky-rice cakes, but they could probably make a bigger one if they knew the recipe."