Predicting Cambodia: Before and After a Historic Election

My research paper for the East-West Center's Asia-Pacific Bulletin about growing influence of social media on pre-election Cambodia.

My research paper for the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Bulletin about the growing influence of social media in pre-election Cambodia.

I have finally received a color copy of my first policy paper published by the East-West Center, a prominent U.S. education and research institution. This short research has greatly boosted my confidence in predicting and analyzing events in Cambodia.

In this paper, I primarily argued that on the eve of Cambodian fifth general elections, a number of new socio-political variables have entered Cambodian politics, including a merger of Hun Sen’s political opposition, a sudden and accidental political awareness of a new generation I termed “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers”, and a rise in nationalism that – unlike the 2008’s Preah Vihear drama – was more favorable to the opposition party’s anti-Vietnam campaign. Just months before the election, these new variables converged on the country’s exploding Facebook and other social media platforms, which are in themselves a significant variable. The growth pace of this “digital democracy” had kept it largely under the government’s radar.

Although (or because) published just days before the elections, the paper received only moderate publicity, except for the Bangkok Post. I was also too busy after the election to write a follow-up to it.

Nevertheless, I was among the first few observers who seemed to have fully grasped the changes in pre-election Cambodia. The points I laid out would later be confirmed by the election results and other Cambodia observers have since followed up on those social changes. It is a current hot topic among researchers and journalists and this latest piece in the Southeast Asia Globe could easily have been my own follow-up writing.

Predicting Cambodia is always interesting because the country must be one of the world’s most unpredictable. Due to its modern history and political ideology, Cambodia does not easily fit established political and social theories. New terms like “auto-genocide” and references like Phnom Penh’s 2012 “high-profile failure” over the South China Sea dispute had to be developed. July’s surprising general election also seemed to have put Cambodia closer to an Arab Spring than any other Southeast Asian country.

Well, these all make the job of guessing “what’s next?” in Cambodia all the more fun.

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.

Social Media’s Growing Influence on Cambodian Politics

Note: This following analysis piece in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 222 is my first major policy publication. It is about Cambodia’s nascent ‘digital democracy’ that is emerging around this year’s national elections. The PDF version is available here.

ANALYSIS

Social Media’s Growing Influence on  Cambodian Politics 

By Sophat Soeung, July 23, 2013

One month before Cambodia’s general election scheduled for July 28, the government announced a directive banning local radio stations from airing foreign programs during the campaign and election period. The directive temporarily banned programs from Western broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language services. In response, the Cambodian public immediately turned to Facebook and other social media voicing their condemnation, followed by the US government and international media outlets, resulting in the government reversing the ban the next day. Both social media and the Internet are increasingly changing the dynamics of election politics worldwide, especially in countries with a high youth-bulge, and Cambodia is no exception to this trend.

Observers widely agree that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will win the election, returning incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen to power, a position he has held since 1985. As in its 2008 landslide victory, the CPP continues to maintain strong rural support, while presiding over rapid economic growth and maintaining a tight grip on the country’s media. However, social changes–including social media–over the past five years, along with political changes, will likely ensure that the CPP is short of its earlier landslide win.

An example of political change is that the two main opposition parties merged into one party, the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy, who has now returned from self-imposed exile in France to join his deputy, Kem Sokha, also a seasoned politician, for last-minute campaigning. In addition, the CPP is less able to use nationalism to attract the votes of the “post-Khmer Rouge baby-boomers”–those born after 1979–who are 36 percent of registered voters. It is this demographic that presents the single greatest opportunity for the opposition, a cohort that uses the Internet and social media rather than state-controlled media as an important source of news.

Social media, especially Facebook, is a recent phenomenon in Cambodia and to date has not been subject to governmental controls. Government figures show that from 2010 to 2012, Internet penetration in Cambodia jumped from one percent to nearly 20 percent, partly due to the proliferation of mobile devices. Facebook has emerged as the most popular platform and has registered over 900,000 users, including social-media savvy members of the opposition.

Even before opposition politicians began utilizing social media tools, civil society and human rights groups were already using them amidst Cambodia’s otherwise highly restricted media climate. Activists opposing Phnom Penh’s controversial Boeung Kak lake development project, in particular, utilize social media to gain public attention in a city with high Internet penetration. Videos of their protests have gained a lot of traction in local and foreign media and won them international recognition. Facebook has evolved from primarily an entertainment website to an alternative news source and platform for self-expression, and a way to bypass the state-controlled one-sided views on radio and television.

A small–and possibly staged–pro-government protest at the Cambodian Mekong University in May could be a watershed in Cambodian politics. This was an incident where protesters criticized visiting UN Human Rights envoy Surya Subedi regarding his negative report on human rights violations in Cambodia. Just two months before the election, the protest attracted an unprecedented youth reaction online–an “anti-protest” to the protesters. For the first time many young Cambodians showed interest in a political issue and freely expressed their views. Some uploaded personal videos criticizing the protest against Subedi that they considered unrepresentative of their views. One day after the online “anti-protest” reaction, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) issued an appeal for social media users to refrain from spreading misinformation.

The NEC’s call for public caution could help expand the impact of social media in Cambodian politics, a trend that some claim is already irreversible. CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy and others started their online election campaign to attract young voters well ahead of official campaign season. By June, Rainsy had claimed “victory” over Hun Sen for Facebook popularity. Not long after that declaration, Hun Sen’s Facebook page began posting more regular updates, often responding directly to issues raised by the opposition. Needless to say, the online campaign has allowed the opposition to bring up issues of interest to young voters–human rights, social justice, corruption, education, and unemployment. Online at least, the election process seems free and fair.

The impact of social media for now, however, is extremely limited in rural areas–the traditional electoral base of the CPP. Rural Cambodians primarily rely on state-controlled radio and television for news and information. Perhaps for this reason, the Internet in Cambodia has remained uncensored, which some proudly call “digital democracy.” On the same day as the NEC statement, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said his government does not plan to shut down Facebook, but warned that “improper” content might be met with lawsuits. Over time, as the Internet expands into rural areas, social media will likely become more vulnerable to government censorship, especially under a CPP administration.

Irrespective of the upcoming election results, social media has created a nascent and more pluralistic online political environment where Cambodians exchange different political viewpoints freely. These are significant emerging trends that will impact youth political behavior beyond the July elections. Cambodia is following other Southeast Asian states in this trend, most recently witnessed in Malaysia’s closely fought May election.

Looking ahead, the international community, ASEAN democracies, and the US government should further invest in Cambodia’s emerging digital democracy and ensure that the Internet remains free. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh is to be commended for its many pioneering projects with youth and civil society–from blogging, to technology conferences and communications innovation. These initiatives have, however, done little to open up state-controlled traditional media to other political groups–something that the international community should continue advocating for. As freedom of expression continues to shrink off-line in Cambodia, it looks as if the role of digital democracy via social media will only increase in this election process. Furthermore, for Cambodia’s increasingly outspoken younger generation, online democracy may well hold the promise of off-line change beyond July’s election.

About the Author

Sophat Soeung is a Research Fellow with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C.

On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.

Deconstructing the Current Cambodian-Thai Diplomatic Dispute: A Cambodian Perspective

Original blog post of November 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have now moved beyond Preah Vihearand become increasingly more complicated. Yet, things may as well be straightforward, or so it seems from this very insightful piece by the Asia Times’ Craig Guthrie:

Hun Sen’s main domestic opponent says the premier’s overtures to Thaksin are not motivated by scoring political points or a desire to uphold Khmer nationalism, but instead are due to pressure being exerted on him by Vietnam, the invading nation which initially installed him as premier in 1985 and which the opposition still claims has influence over the CCP government.

Sam Rainsy has called the argument between Thaksin and Abhisit a “political game” to turn the Cambodian public’s attention to the west, in the direction of Thailand, while ignoring the east, towards Vietnam. Antagonism among Cambodians – over inward migration and alleged land grabbing – is much higher towards Vietnam, which occupied Cambodia between 1979 and 1989, than towards Thailand, which has made less controversial service-sector inroads into the country.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Hun Sen is trying to show that he is the defender of the national interests of Cambodia and that Thailand is the real enemy of Cambodia and not Vietnam,” said United States-based Cambodian economist Naranhkiri Tith.

Although the above analysis may not fully explain the current “political game,” it does compellingly show that the current ‘nationalist double standard’ exercised by the CPP government is partly rooted in the Party’s owning its existence to Vietnam’s support as well as its distrust of Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s Cambodian Cold War politics. Nevertheless, it is likely that the motivations behind the current moves are as much the CCP’s different historic relations with the two neighbors as they are a need to uphold Khmer nationalism in the eyes of an increasingly changing domestic demography.

With the memories and legacy of the Khmer Rouge–the demise of which is a major source of the CCP’s political legitimacy–gradually fading away, particularly amongst young and educated Cambodians, Khmer nationalism is increasingly becoming a substitute tool for political and moral legitimacy. Post-Khmer Rouge-born Cambodians may already make up the majority of the voting population and certainly will in the near future. To this audience, the destruction of the Khmer Rouge means little, if anything, compared to job security, better education, better health care, or particularly post-conflict national pride and nation-(re)building.

Khmer nationalism has traditionally included the centuries-old process of ‘othering’–the creation of group enemies–of the neighboring Thais and Vietnamese to produce a sense and defense of ‘Khmer-ness’. With some exceptions, politicized animosities against the two more powerful neighbors have often been an unbalanced either-or affair; that is, either turning more East (against Vietnam) or West (against Thailand) depending on what Cambodian regime is in power and which foreign patron it is ‘indebted’ to. Such animosity is practically non-existent against neighboring Laos, a country similarly squeezed between the two powerful neighbors. In contemporary Cambodian political context, is seems likely that more problems would arise with Thailand than Vietnam if the CCP rules, while the opposite–more antagonistic policies towards Vietnam and warmer relations with Thailand– would ensue should the current opposition party come to power. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s recent political stunt at the Vietnamese border and the consequences thereof highlight what can be expected of Cambodia’s domestic-cum-neighborly politics in the coming years.

As a matter of nationalist politics, the current ruling CCP has few other choices than to exploit its historical distrust of Thailand. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it is also trying to counter any perceived double standard in order to be seen as the ‘real guarantor’ of the nation’s independence in the eyes of its people. It comes as no surprise, then, that Cambodia’s information minister recently led a Cambodian delegation to what is known by Khmers as ‘Kampuchea Krom’ or ‘Lower Cambodia’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta territory to showcase that the CPP also cares about ethnic Khmers there and can also ‘tackle’ Vietnam, although in a much more amicable way.

What Guthrie describes as “domestic political spat that has spilled over into international relations” and which initially was applied to Thai internal politics in relation to the Preah Vihear dispute and now also suitably applied to Cambodian politics, is potentially very destructive politics that comes at a heavy price for peoples living along the Cambodia-Thailand and Cambodia-Vietnam borders as well as a blow to the ASEAN spirit altogether. Concerned politicians should keep these consequences in mind now that it is their capacity to reconstruct a better politics for their country and the region.