Commentary: Cambodia's battle for democracy

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For over three decades, Cambodia's authoritarian government has consolidated and expanded its power on a foundation of corrupt, faux-democratic rule and unbalanced, “urban-led” economic growth. But in recent months, with pivotal national elections slated for July 29, the administration of Hun Sen – the world's longest-serving prime minister – has abandoned even the pretense of liberalism.

Made paranoid by growing popular support for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has left no stone unturned in its quest to stifle its critics and to quash threats to its hold on power. Since last August, a U.S.-funded nongovernmental organization, the National Democratic Institute, has been expelled, radio stations airing broadcasts from Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and Voice of Democracy have been suspended, and the Cambodia Daily – an independent newspaper I once reported for – has been forced to close. In May, the Phnom Penh Post – which was widely viewed as the last bastion of Cambodia’s free press – saw a mass walkout of staff after it was sold to a Malaysian businessman with ties to Hun Sen.

This crackdown on dissent has taken place alongside systematic efforts to destroy the Cambodia National Rescue Party. CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested on trumped-up treason charges in September and, in November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court formally disbanded the party, banning its 118 members from politics for five years. Many have since gone into exile overseas, following the example of former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who fled to France in 2015.

With no credible opposition left, Cambodia has regressed from a "hybrid regime" into an "authoritarian" one, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranks the nation just 124th out of 167 in its Democracy Index. The United States and the European Union have ceased some aid and electoral support and are weighing up further measures. But with China's growing no-strings-attached aid behind the regime, the West's moral and economic leverage is decreasing.

Though Hun Sen appears to have dynastic ambitions on his mind, and is expected to promote his three sons to higher political offices following his certain victory this Sunday, it’s not necessarily time to sound the death knell on Cambodia’s democratic ambitions. First, suppressing free speech and genuine grievances is not a long-term strategy. The fact that close to half the country’s registered voters chose the CNRP in last year’s commune elections is itself a sign of the public's desire for an alternative to the government's opaque, corrupt, and anti-democratic style of rule. And while the independent voices needed to shed light on land evictions and graft are being squeezed out, the legacy of their work remains imprinted in citizen's minds. Many already know enough to be skeptical of Hun Sen’s government.

Second, with almost two-thirds of the population below the age of 30, Cambodia’s demographics are firmly stacked against the CPP. As this generation has little direct memory of conflict or of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, the national psyche has evolved from one seeking stability above all toward one seeking increasing freedoms. This shift has meshed neatly with the expansion of online democratic spaces, as Cambodia’s rapidly increasing internet penetration – from under 1 percent a decade ago to over 25 percent today – allows international news, trends and values to filter in.

Third, rapid economic growth and rising inequality have increased pressure on the government to be more responsive to citizens’ needs. The CPP has directed funds to grandiose malls and real estate projects, which give the appearance of progress, but only benefit an elite few. Though Cambodia’s poverty rate has dropped substantially, many are at risk of falling back into destitution, even as skyscrapers and a flood of new gadgets have given them a vision of what a better life might look like. The precariousness of their position means that, for many Cambodians, their country’s arbitrary law enforcement, weak bureaucracy, and corrupt elites are the focus of growing concern. 

Despite the government’s penchant for using force to crush public demonstrations, and its habitual monitoring of social media to stave off online "color revolutions," many Cambodians will find other means to protest and resist, boycotting state-linked enterprises, as well as the upcoming election. The global community, including the exiled opposition diaspora, must do what it can to support them. Though a recent 45-country effort to pressure Hun Sen to reinstate the CNRP and to hold free elections was a failure, it must be followed by targeted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans. Hun Sen has party and military loyalties to maintain through financing, and these measures would significantly weaken these patronage systems at a time when, according to some reports, only 30 percent of lower-ranked members of the armed forces now genuinely support the regime.

The longer a strongman remains in power, the more resourceful he must be to maintain it. But only the most naïve strongman would bet against the will, ingenuity, and endurance of Cambodians. Though Hun Sen and his party have done their autocratic best to regulate economic and political liberties into near-extinction, it has become clear that the desire for freedom and prosperity has been ineradicably instilled in Cambodia’s Web-savvy, interconnected and outward-looking post-conflict generation. Now that the seeds of democracy and economic development have been sown, they will be hard to trample out.

About the Author

Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He was an associate editor and reporter at The Cambodia Daily in 2015 and 2016. @tejparikh90

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.