Will Cambodia see a ‘spring’?

Phnom Penh has potential for radical democratic change, but further steps are necessary

February 21, 2014 8:45AM ET
A protest in Phnom Penh on Jan. 27. Riot police used smoke canisters and electric batons to disperse a demonstration by a few hundred protesters demanding a government license for an independent television station.
Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

The past seven months in Cambodia can only be described as a roller-coaster ride — one I have been privileged to witness and to take a small part in. Cambodian citizens have repeatedly taken to the streets and public squares to demand reform. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, of which I have been the president since 2007, has played an important role defending their right to peaceful assembly, encouraging them to exercise their rights to free speech and to vote, and calling for restraint from all parties, among other efforts.

Changes started after Sam Rainsy, the leader of the main political opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), returned from four years of self-imposed exile right before the July 2013 national elections. His return was amplified by a merger with Kem Sokha, another opposition figure and former leader of the Human Rights Party, who is now vice president of the CNRP. Together they have re-energized not just the political opposition — the CNRP flag features a rising sun — but the country as a whole, which has seen widespread discontent with the status quo.

Demands for change are now coming from all corners of society: victims of land grabs, who have been fighting a losing battle to protect their homes; garment-factory workers, who want a living wage; farmers, who remain mired in poverty; and civil society groups, which have been frustrated at a lack of real progress on the myriad of issues they work on. The increasing dissatisfaction and expressions for change since Rainsy’s return in early July have led many Cambodians to ask, will our country see a "spring" like the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East?

Ingredients of revolution

If there is a single country in all of Asia with the potential for such a “spring,” it would be Cambodia. All the necessary ingredients are present. First, it has one of the youngest populations in the world. The post–Khmer Rouge baby boomers, who are now in their late 20s, didn't live through "Year Zero" — 1975, the year Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power, purged millions of Cambodians deemed dangers to the revolution and sought to build an entirely new, deindustrialized society from the ground up until they were ousted in 1979. Spared of such historical trauma, the younger generation will no longer accept the same excuses the government makes for its failures. ("We started with empty hands." "Anything is better than the Khmer Rouge.”)

Second, very rapid urbanization has taken place over the past decade because of significant growth in the garment industry and other sectors, which are concentrated in urban areas. Bustling cities and town centers are now found throughout the country, not just in Phnom Penh. Moreover, with economic growth, widespread availability of cheap smartphones, Internet coverage and more than a million Facebook users, Cambodian citizens are increasingly eager to express themselves. Last but not least, Cambodia suffers from its own Hosni Mubarak, the increasingly unpopular Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for 29 years with an iron fist. He is infamous for long, unprepared, fiery speeches that cover everything from the days of his youth, to jokes he found funny on TV, to threats against activists as well as his own Cabinet members.

The wealth consistently flaunted by the
corrupt ruling class is now seen with contempt
by the poor and middle classes.

Despite all these factors, however, Cambodia is not ready for a "spring" — at least not just yet. The necessary ingredients are here, yes, but they are not sufficient. While urbanization has taken place, approximately half the population still lives in remote, rural areas. Facebook, while undeniably an effective information-sharing tool, cannot substitute for movement building and strategic planning. The reality remains that, while the people are united in opposition to the status quo, most do not have a unified vision of what “change” should entail, and most simply do not know what they are fighting for.

A Cambodian “spring” now is not only unlikely but also undesirable. Unfortunately, the main anti-government movement gaining the most traction is very noticeably led by ultranationalist elements riding on an anti-Vietnamese agenda without offering a set of clear policies for what they would do once in power. (The Vietnamese, who helped overthrow the Khmer Rouge, helped to put Hun Sen in power.) This is making the politically moderate — most of them educated middle-class people who are seeking change grounded in concrete policies — and the business sector uncomfortable, and yet their support is essential for the success of a “spring” of real reform rather than chaos and nationalist fanaticism.

March toward democracy

Despite these concerns, there are reasons for optimism. The 2013 elections issued a huge wake-up call for an overly arrogant government and its leadership, which saw the opposition make significant gains in the National Assembly despite election irregularities and campaigning on much more limited resources. The wealth consistently flaunted by the corrupt ruling class is now seen with contempt by the poor and middle classes. While Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have remained in power, their showing in the elections — the party won by only 300,000 votes — has made them rethink their strategy. The message has been clear: reform must happen now or the people will rise.

Now more than ever, Cambodia needs the international community — governments, donors, companies with business interests in Cambodia, consumers of products produced there — to help empower grassroots groups trying to be heard, to support unions and workers’ movements, to ensure that civil society can initiate the substantive, positive and long-lasting change that will bring true democracy to Cambodia. Garment workers, whose strike last month was met with a brutal military crackdown, are planning another strike in March. This may provide the global community with another test of its good will.

The voices of change are becoming louder, despite attempts by the government to quiet them. A true democracy would instead listen to the people. New policies that concretely address the country’s most important issues, such as income inequality, land rights and the reform of the corrupt judicial system, must be implemented urgently. The opposition CNRP must focus on taking principled stances for improving the lot of Cambodians and working toward unifying the country. With patience, smart politics and organizing, the momentum will stay on the side of the people. If the international community supports their aspirations, eventually the government will have to as well.

Virak Ou is a leading voice on political and civil rights in Cambodia and the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He is also the founder of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia and the winner of the 2007 Reebok Human Rights Award.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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