5th June 2019 -  A “noodle war” is under way in Cambodia between the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the main opposition party that was banned from politics.

Following the forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in late 2017, the arrests of its leaders, and a ban on political gatherings, the party has tried every means possible to reactivate its membership. It is now calling on supporters to eat “num banh chok,” or Khmer noodles, in public together as a way to evade the ban.

Eating Khmer noodles as a way of discussing political matters has spread from one village to another across the country. It has prompted the courts to summon many party officials for questioning for allegedly violating a law that banned them from political activities for five years.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the CNRP, said that in May more than 60 CNRP supporters were summoned for questioning for allegedly voicing support for acting party leader Sam Rainsy while eating noodles in public.

Yesterday, Sam Rainsy issued a call on Facebook for supporters to gather on June 9 to eat Khmer noodles “without fear.”  “Please also invite your neighbors to eat together in the spirit of friendship because we are all one Khmer family,” he wrote.

The latest move by the party has been compared to a famous folktale regarding Chinese mooncakes traced back to the 13th century during the Yuan Dynasty, when the Chinese were under Mongol rule and the Han people decided to plan an uprising.

As gatherings were banned at the time, rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang distributed mooncakes to all of the Chinese residents, each cake containing a piece of paper saying: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month.” The rebellion succeeded, and Zhu set up the Ming Dynasty.

Sam Rainsy lives abroad in self-exile after being charged with a number of seemingly politically motivated charges.  He has repeatedly announced that he is planning to return to Cambodia this year despite being threatened with arrest by Hun Sen.

He said his return will be accompanied by international observers together with Cambodian workers abroad including those working in Thailand and in South Korea, and that he will be welcomed by supporters in the country.

Hun Sen has shrewdly attempted to coopt the movement, telling the nation that eating noodles is a way for people to show solidarity and challenge the CNRP.

Cambodian Num Banh Chok noodles being freshly made in Phnom Penh

Cambodian Num Banh Chok noodles being freshly made in Phnom Penh

On Monday he called for June 9 to be a “day of solidarity and national unity” instead of a “day of division” among Cambodians.  Hun Sen said his strategy is “using a hammer to hit the nail.”

His call has been translated into an official circular nationwide, with authorities at all levels tasked with preparing for a “noodle-eating day” set on Sunday.

Chheng Chan, 57, a noodle seller for 32 years, said she is happy to hear that people are now encouraged to eat noodles as that makes her business better.

She said just one day after Hun Sen’s announcement that she has got more clients and her income increased about 20 percent.

When asked if she is planning to increase the price of her noodles, she said not for the time being.

The “noodle war” could be influenced by “noodle diplomacy,” in which Cambodian diplomats posted abroad have prepared the dish for decades when they invited guests to their embassies.

A few Cambodian scholars have observed that Khmer noodles have a longer history than Chinese noodles, commonly called “kuy tiev.”

For breakfast, the majority of Cambodians living in major cities enjoy Chinese noodles more than Khmer noodles, although the former is double or triple the price because it contains more meat. But for local villagers, Khmer noodles is still the preferred choice.

Khmer noodles allegedly originated from a poor family that grew a kind of rice that was not soft enough to eat, so the couple tried to cook it a different way and made the taste unique.

It subsequently reached the royal family and it became known throughout the country since then.

Khmer noodles consist of rice vermicelli noodles with soup that contains fermented fish, pounded fish and lemon grass. Most processes are done by hand with a stone mill and the dish is eaten with a variety of organic vegetables.