Author Predicts ‘Evolutionary’ Shedding of Cambodia’s Old Politics

By Sophat Soeung

WASHINGTON—Editor’s note: The strong performance of the Cambodian opposition in the 2013 elections and subsequent call for leadership change surprised many observers. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his rule and has recently marked 30 years in power. Sebastian Strangio, a former reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recently joined VOA Khmer for a TV interview at the Voice of America studios in Washington, to discuss the future of Cambodia’s political system.

You moved to Cambodia in 2008, the year there was an election that was arguably the height of the popularity of Hun Sen and the ruling party. Did the results in the elections five years later surprised you?

They did, yes. I think there were very few people who guessed what was going to happen. 2008 was an overwhelming victory for the CPP. And it seemed as if they had established their dominance to such an extent that it is now beyond challenge. But what 2013 showed is that we were mistaken about a lot of this, or we overlooked many of the social and economic changes that had taken place, not only over the past five years, but over the past two decades.

After the elections, the ruling party promised deep reforms. To what extent do you think they can deliver on that promise?

Well, it’s always going to be a challenge for them. I think that Hun Sen realizes the importance of reform and that if he doesn’t do it, doesn’t take steps to improve things for ordinary people, that the party is going to have a very difficult time being reelected in 2018. You can already see that they have started to take steps in education and environmental policy, but the problem with the Cambodian political system is that Hun Sen relies so heavily on a class of tycoons and business people and powerful military commanders and government officials. And his rule has been based on keeping these people happy. Now the $60,000 question is whether he will be able to reform the system enough to keep people from switching their vote to the opposition while still maintaining the power and support of these individuals who have supported his rule for so long.

What is your sense of that?

So far the contradictions remain. The government has taken some positive steps, reforming education, for instance, but when it comes to challenging the entrenched economic interests that exist in Cambodia, the powerful tycoons and their connection to things like logging and deforestation, land grabs, that link has been very difficult to sever. There is still an incredible inertia out in the provinces. The logging continues, land grabs continue, and I think that the government has only a limited amount of power to really stop it. The system relies too heavily on this. So only time will tell whether they’re ultimately successful in getting that balance right.

Part of the question also rests on the opposition, which has also been criticized for lack of leadership. I think you mentioned that somewhere in your book as well. Now do you see the opposition as a viable alternative in the next election? And what more should they do to actually live up to some of the promises that they’ve given?

It is very difficult for the opposition, because in a political system that’s based on patronage, which is the way Cambodia works today, and the bonds of loyalty between ministers and their staff and military commanders and soldiers that serve them. It’s very difficult for the opposition to simply slot into that system and command the loyalty of all of these civil servants and soldiers and police officials. And so in that sense they face huge challenges, and I think the best thing the [Cambodian National Rescue Party] can do at the moment is to work away slowly at promoting better policies and pushing their agenda in parliament and then hope that slow, incremental change allows them more and more say in how the country is governed. I don’t think a rapid transition of power is likely in Cambodia, and, in the past, most transitions of power from one group to another have involved some sort of violence. So I think a slow sort of evolution is probably the best course, but I don’t think the party is in a position to immediately take control of the country, nor do I think Hun Sen is in a position or of an inclination to grant them that.

In your book, you seem optimistic about Cambodia’s younger generation. An analyst mentioned that the future of Cambodia rests on that generation’s ability to produce its own leaders to avoid what he called “old politics.” How and when do you think that might happen?

I think it is already starting to happen. The Cambodian population is more educated and more connected to the outside world than ever before. And so I think we’re already starting to see young people rise up, either in the NGO sector or the private sector, who have incredible leadership abilities. The question is whether the current political system will allow them to use their talents in government. So far the 18 months since the election have been pretty much politics as usual. It’s been old politics. It’s been negotiations between key individuals, a lot of egos, and not a lot of substance.

It is generally understood that Hun Sen is grooming his children for a future transition. What will be the consequence of that?

It’s too soon to say exactly what the CPP is planning. It is certainly planning some sort of generational succession. You see that with not just Hun Sen’s children, but also many other ruling party officials have maneuvered their son and daughters into positions of power. But as with everything in the CPP, it depends not just on what Hun Sen wants but also on what all of the powerful people that have a stake in the current system, what they want. And I think that any potential candidate to take over from Hun Sen will have to have the loyalty of the majority of the country’s powerbrokers. And I think it is too soon to say who might be in a position to command that sort of loyalty.

You say in your book that the Cambodian story needs to be told. What do you think is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from Cambodia that can be applied in the region?

I think it is the fate of Cambodia’s democratic transition. In places like Myanmar right now, we see a similar sort of transition happening: a move from a closed, isolated, and embargoed system, to one that’s welcoming international aid and foreign investment. But I think what Cambodia shows is the ability to engineer democracy in a country that has such a violent and unstable history and very little history of democratic government was always going to be a tall order, and I think it is a cautionary tale for the ease with which these sorts of systems can be simply built from the ground up. But the problem is that very few people pay attention to Cambodia anymore, and it is a pity, because I think these lessons are very clear and I think if people looked to Cambodia and analyzed what’s going on in the last 20 years since the UNTAC mission of the early 1990s, I think they would have much more temperate expectations about the democratic possibilities for somewhere like Burma.

This article originally appeared on VOA Khmer here.

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.

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.