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.

Sdok Kok Thom & Preah Vihear: In Border Temples, Shared History, Acceptance?

Here is is my VOA interview with John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent and author of “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Text below.

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule over the disputed territories between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on Nov. 11. While the temple has seen tensions and armed conflicts over the years, another ancient Khmer border temple, Sdok Kok Thom, might serve as an example of how both nations can move beyond the conflicts of the past. John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent, has authored a book about the temple tilted “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Burgess tells VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat that while these border temples have been the cause of conflict, they can also be a source of shared history and mutual acceptance between Thailand and Cambodia.

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.

Angkor’s Founding City Revealed on Mount Kulen

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Age website)

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Sydney Morning Herald website)

A group of archaeologists from the Greater Angkor Project in Australia have discovered the precise location and extent of Mahendraparvata, one of the founding Angkorean cities, according an exclusive report by the Sydney Morning Herald. Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របព៌ត) – now with its own Wikipedia entry – was founded by King Jayavarman II on the now “mist-shrouded” Phnom Kulen mountains around time of the Khmer Empire’s founding in 802. The urban structure of the ancient city was discovered using a modern airborne laser-scanning technology called lidar.

Damian Evans who leads the research, explains the significance of the find:

”This is where it all began, giving rise to the Angkor civilisation that everyone associates with Angkor Wat.”

The mountain city predates the nearby lowland city of Angkor and Angkor Wat by 350 but appears to have similar urban features of roads, canals, temples, and orientation.

A 2007 research map by the GAP which showed Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city included Phnom Kulen within its study boundary. But it did not show anything other than scattered temples on the mountain.

Maps from a 2007 research, revealing the extend of Angkor's urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. (www.newscientist.com)

A map from a 2007 research reveals the extend of Angkor’s urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. This makes Angkor the largest pre-industrial city known. (www.newscientist.com)

Although researchers have long known about the existence and location of Mahendraparvata, the new findings suddenly put a sophisticated urban structures – roads, canals, dykes, etc – all onto a plateau-like mountain. As amazing as it is to imagine what the sprawling city of Angkor looked like during its peak in the 12th century, it is equally fascinating to ponder what an ancient Khmer ‘hydraulic plateau’ city with mountainous roads and canals looked like. Mahendraparvata is then no longer a just a collection of temples where King Jayavarman II declared the birth of the Khmer Empire, but rather it would be a hydraulic city in its own right and on the above map, would appear as an outlying suburb or satellite city of Greater Angkor. Astounding.

But why did Jayavarman II eventually descend from the mountain city to build a low-land capital at Hariharalaya near Angkor? Was Mahendraparvata a prototype for Angkor’s hydraulic structures or was deforestation also an early story for the civilization?

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

It’s unclear why the King decided to move down. This finding seems to tell me that after having experimented with water management on the safely situated and self-sustaining mountain capital, the King looked down over the vast forested Angkorean plain and thought “Now let’s implement our urbanization project on a grand scale.”

But perhaps it might just have been deforestation and the beginning a starting-anew pattern that would recur throughout the Angkorean period?

In fact, the Khmer’s very tendency to over-engineer their landscapes may have led to their ultimate doom. Whenever drought killed rice and other crops, the Khmer simply moved elsewhere and built even larger canals — stretching beyond the landscape’s sustainability. Decades-long droughts in the 14th and 15thcenturies finally helped do the civilization in.

This is anyone’s guess at this point. In any case, King Jayarvarman II must have been a visionary leader who not only established the “God-King” as state ideology but also had some strong geographical and engineering understandings. It seems that the birth of the Khmer Empire was possible due to very unique historical circumstances: a toxic fusion of ambitions, ideology, scientific understanding, favorable geography, etc. What eventually brought it down, as many scholars now believe, were overengineering and equally unique circumstances of mega-droughts.

If you are really into ‘scientific archeology’ as I am, please stay tuned to Dr. Evans’ team’s research titled “Uncovering Archaeological Landscapes at Angkor Using Lidar” to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It’s like Indiana-Jones all over again!