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.

Historians Look at Former King’s ‘Mixed’ Legacy

Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia's capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.

Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia’s capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer & Victor Beattie, VOA News, October 17, 2012

WASHINGTON DC – Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who died in China on Monday, came to the throne at the age of 19. But he grew to become the most prominent national figure during decades of Cambodia’s turbulent politics.

Those who have closely watched his politics over the years say that the former king’s greatest legacy can be found in the early years of his rule and his continued role as a symbol of unity during troubled times. But they also point to some of his darker legacies, including his support for the Khmer Rouge at a critical turning point in Cambodian history.

Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, told VOA the former king built modern Cambodia from what had been a feudal monarchy. But his most lasting legacy was the winning of independence for his country from colonial France in 1953.

“He is the symbol of Cambodian independence and unity,” Jeldres told VOA. “He managed to keep this country at peace, while the Vietnam War was raging next door.”

Sihanouk, who was nearly 90, died in Beijing early Monday after a heart attack. He had gradually retreated from public life after passing the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004.

David Chandler, an author and prominent scholar of modern Cambodian history, said Sihanouk dominated, “or you might even say smothered,” Cambodia’s early political scene.

“He felt himself in some ways to be the embodiment of the country…that the spirit of Cambodia presided in him as king,” Chandler told VOA. “He felt he had a special endowment to represent the Cambodian people. He combined this with a deep and very sincere love of ordinary Cambodians, which is a characteristic you won’t find too frequently among the Cambodian rulers.”

Sihanouk will be ill remembered by some for his support of the Khmer Rouge insurgency, between his ouster by coup in 1970 and the regime’s overthrow of the Lon Nol government, in 1975.

“But he didn’t know what they were going to do when they came to power,” Chandler said. “And when they did come to power, they locked him up for three years, and their cruel and inhumane policies I think shocked him and upset him.”