One Year into Post-Sihanouk Cambodia

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of the arrival of the King Father's body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of today’s arrival of the King Father’s body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

October 15 this week marked the first anniversary of the death of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last year in Beijing of heart attack at the age of 89. While the media has focused extensively on the subsequent royal funeral, and to a lesser extent the obituary and the legacy of the former monarch, there has been less focus on the immediate implication of his death to the current political culture of Cambodia. It appears that the death of the revered King less than one year before Cambodia’s general election – and thus the absence of a long-standing unifying figure around a critical political period – has helped created an environment for ‘forced’ political compromise in post-election crisis.

The death of this most influential Cambodian politician might have impacted the population and political parties in pre-election months in the following ways:

  • In the months leading up to the election, the royal funeral and mass mobilization of people to participate in the ceremony had been unseen in the country’s last decade. This mass mobilization both offline and online, followed by unprecedented student protests, help set the stage for a highly active election campaign just months later and particularly ensure the political coming of age of the post-war generation. This boost appeared to have favored the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) more than the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
  • For the opposition movement, the death also meant the end of any viable royalist contestants in the election, therefore centralizing the role of the Cambodian National Rescue Party as the sole opposition movement.
  • For the Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the death of the revered King meant a short-term opportunity to capitalize on King Sihanouk’s popularity, particularly among young voters. Yet, despite his effort to closely associate himself with the revered monarch – even to the chagrin of some royals – and bridge Sihanouk’s legacy with his own by throwing a lavish royal funeral ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen failed to substantially garner youth votes.

The absence of the revered monarch as a unifying figure in times of political crisis – in the eyes of the ordinary Cambodians and politicians alike – seemed to help ensure a degree of stability before and after the election by restraining all actors’ potential moves. Sihanouk’s son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, has yet to play the imposing role his father did. Furthermore, as Cambodia is coming out of its longest period of peace in decades, unlike in past post-election periods, no political rival wants to be seen as the starter of violence. Thus, despite the opposition protests and growing tensions, there has been relatively low degree of the outright violence seen in past elections and both sides seem eager to start negotiations. While it is premature to view this as a degree of political maturing, the nation is entering rather unfamiliar territory.

The election results – while still disputed by the opposition CNRP – clearly shows the country politically split between the two parties, meaning a much reduced legitimacy for the ruling CPP and Mr. Hun Sen. Mr. Hun Sen’s attempts to build a personal cult based on the larger-than-live persona of King Sihanouk is therefore shaken and the CPP faces its greatest challenge yet to reform ahead of the next elections. On the whole, however, this means that Cambodia is entering a new era where political legitimacy is changing in the eyes of a changing populace, with decreasing focus on charisma or personality and more on party policies and delivery. In this new status quo, the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP parties alike will have to work harder on policy specifics to meet the rising expectations of the electorate ahead of the 2018 elections.

On the inauguration of the statue of the former King, there is again dispute over access to the royal ceremony – thus traditional legitimacy. Only time will tell if history will look back at the death of former King Sihanouk as the end of an era in Cambodia’s political history or merely a minor point in the era of Mr. Hun Sen.

A nice piece by the Phnom Penh Post on how the former King is remembered one year on.

Opposition Looks To Facebook for Election Push

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: With no access to traditional media ahead of the July national election, Cambodia’s opposition is increasingly turning to the country’s small but growing online media to attract voters. Last week, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, celebrated online “victory” over Prime Minister Hun Senafter his Facebook page attracted more 70,000 fans. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook leading into the July 28 elections. He spoke to VOA Khmer via phone last week.

Listen to full interview in Khmer here.

What does your “victory” mean?
I want to take this opportunity to thank all my Facebook fans, especially the youth. The majority of my fans are those under 30; from around 18 to 30 years old constitute the largest group. They are mostly educated, with computer and English skills, so they are the educated and future leaders of the country, this Facebook generation. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page is fairly popular, with around 67,000 fans. But this page is already three years old, while my Facebook page is only three months old. Within these three months, I have basically surpassed him in terms of popularity. The content that is shared on Mr. Hun Sen’s page are official and important documents that must come from the government or someone close to Mr. Hun Sen. No one else would have such documents.

Why do you think that the Internet/social media in Cambodia has remained free and uncensored?
This is a technological, social and cultural trend occurring worldwide, especially among the young generations, which no one can stop. Even in China, which we consider a communist and highly restricted country, the government cannot shut down Facebook or the Internet. They might regulate or censor it, but they cannot shut it down. So even a superpower like China cannot shut down the Internet, let alone an aid-dependent country like Cambodia.

Are you concerned that the Cambodian government might try to shut down Facebook during the election?
I believe that Mr. Hun Sen’s government has an interest in blocking Facebook, because it has encouraged the educated youth to share and exchange news and ideas freely and safely, leading to a change of mindset. So I believe the Cambodian People’s Party is very concerned about the growth of Facebook and will probably attempt to shut it down. But I don’t think they will be able to do so, to prevent that trend.

You are targeting young voters. But since you don’t have a physical presence in Cambodia, don’t you think there is a limitation to use Facebook to reach especially people in the rural areas?
I believe that my online presence has more impact than my physical presence. That’s because if I go somewhere, I’m only physically present in one place; while on Facebook, I can simultaneously be present in countless places. I can even reach people in their homes anytime and engage with them on a very intimate level.

Malaysia which recently had an election also has a similar political climate to Cambodia. Observers say social media helped the opposition there, but Malaysia has a much higher Internet penetration than Cambodia. How optimistic are you about Facebook’s impact on the upcoming Cambodian election?
I believe there is momentum in social media growth. I was recently in Malaysia and met opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has gained tremendous support, making the opposition win the popular vote although getting fewer seats than the ruling party. The opposition’s winning of the popular vote was in large part due to the help from the Internet and Facebook. We are not at the same level in Cambodia because the number of Internet users is still small. But it is increasing fast. From the latest data I have, there are over 1 million Facebook users.

You were recently quoted by a news organization as saying that you plan to announce the results from polling stations live on Facebook. Can you give further details?
Once we get the results from a ballot count at each polling stations, we will immediately make it public on [Facebook], YouTube. That way, we can immediately calculate the results nationwide and document the accurate count. In the election five years ago, when there was no Facebook or barely any smartphones, we couldn’t follow the results as closely as that time. Then they could change and manipulate the numbers at will. This time there will be transparency in the vote count, as we can immediate record and publicize the numbers.

Even though you can reach your voters via Facebook, do you have any updates on a possible return to Cambodia before the election?
If the upcoming election were legitimate, free and fair by international standards, I would return immediately. But if this election is just a joke, there is no need for me to be there.