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Cambodia’s tipping point

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy returns from self-imposed exile to a crowd of an estimated 100,000 CNRP supporters in Phnom Penh last month.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy returns from self-imposed exile to a crowd of an estimated 100,000 CNRP supporters in Phnom Penh last month. VIREAK MAI

Cambodia’s tipping point

Dear Editor,

Cambodia is undergoing a phenomenon, the beginning of “Cambodia flourishing”, if you will. Even amidst the high-tension political brinkmanship, Cambodia has reached the tipping point, that is slowly but surely ushering in the Cambodia Spring.

However, the season of spring flourishing must first be preceded by the season of discontent, the period we are in now.

Recently, I witnessed first-hand this season of flourishing when I rode in the back of the pick-up truck carrying Sam Rainsy from the airport to Democracy Square upon his return from exile on July 19, 2013, and again at Democracy Square the day he left for the United States for his daughter’s wedding on August 6, 2013.

On both occasions, crowds in the hundreds of thousands openly, fearlessly convulsed onto the truck and stage demanding change. Their passion, palpably pulsating and electrifying the Cambodian air, acts to diminish the prior existing fear.

This season of discontent will be here to stay for some time, snowballing into a monsoonal downpour of discontent, until there is a complete change of leadership. The people demand a surgical reformation in the formation of a government led by the CNRP’s Sam Rainsy, and not Band-Aid changes the CPP will need to and has started to undergo in the inserting of a newer crop of parliamentarian sons.

1. The voters who have no direct experience of the Khmer Rouge.
Three and a half million of the country’s 9.5 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30. Of these 3.5 million young registered voters, 1.5 million, or 15 per cent, are first time voters. What do these numbers tell us?

One, these 3.5 million registered voters below the age of 30 are not directly traumatised by the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, many of them were children during the turbulent years of the 1990s, with some only coming of age in the last election five years ago.

They, unlike their elders, have not accumulated the fear and trauma of having lived through the Khmer Rouge and having witnessed election violence and murders confronting the voters in living colours of prior elections.

I returned to Cambodia in September 1995, less than two years after the United Nations-organised elections. I joined the campaign trails of the Khmer Nation Party in 1998, when travelling to each province took an average of a day through yawning gulfs of crater-sized potholes every few yards on the national roads and each village is its own remote, isolated universe.

In 2002 I traveled the provinces as an international consultant of the US International Republican Institute to train political party agents on the first commune elections, and once again joined the campaign trails of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP, formerly the Khmer Nation Party, changed to keep the CPP from appropriating the name by splitting the party) for this commune election as well as the national elections the following year in 2003.

The roads were semi-improved, but each village was still its own remote, isolated universe.

Once again in 2007 and 2008, for the commune and national elections respectively, I joined SRP on the campaign trails.

In between these elections, I travelled to the provinces for my work, first in 1997 to each provincial prison to assess the state of juveniles detained in these prisons.

And since, I've travelled to each province on numerous occasions in my capacity as the head of the NGO Center for Social Development, known for its justice and reconciliation forums, and most recently as the founding president of CIVICUS Cambodia to conduct the Speak Truth To Power (or, in Khmer, Courage Without Borders) curriculum for teachers, monks and other educational and provincial leaders.

All to say, I have witnessed first-hand the conditions across Cambodia through these 18 years and have paid acute attention (for personal and professional reasons) to the voices and yearnings of the people in trying to understand for myself and for my work these seemingly intractable problems in search of solutions.

And one of my strong beliefs in light of what is happening now during this 2013 election season is this: We are witnessing a new phenomenon – the blooming of a Cambodia Spring, with angst of discontent as the inevitable precedent to the flourishing which will inevitably follow.

The manifestation and timing of it could not have been perceived till it is actually happening, as it is now.

But this phenomenon did not happen out of the blue, magically; it grew organically and was nurtured along the way.

It is part and parcel of all the educational efforts and advocacy and challenging of the status quo and the demanding of each dollar raised to the wage of workers and hotel staff, of each improper land concession.

Then we are given the tools of social media and smartphones and Unicode and English, etc, to set it off, fueled by the energy of the youth coming of age.

2. Social media + smartphones + Khmer Unicode + rising English usage.

The previous elections did not have a public venue where Cambodians, particularly young people, could exchange information and be part of something larger than themselves.

This public venue is closely connected to the growing comfort level and increasing number of Cambodians proficient in English, not only to be on Facebook, but also to have access to a broader array of information (which are mainly in English).

Even if English is the still the dominant language of social media, the comfort level and increased quality of the Khmer Unicode also facilitated the growing use of social media. As recently as five years ago (the last national elections), Cambodians were mired in the pictorial typing system symbolised by the Limon font.

Typing Khmer was basically inhibited to drawing a letter in order to compose each word. For anyone to access a Khmer-language document on the internet meant that that document had been uploaded as a JPG or a PDF.

All to say, as recently as five years ago, Cambodians could not search the internet in the Khmer language, nor write posts or comments on Facebook in the Khmer language, as the pictorial Limon typing system could not facilitate such endeavours.

A few years ago, the posts and comments on Facebook were written in broken English by the Facebook users; now the majority of posts by Khmer users are in the Khmer language.

The ease of language capability in both Khmer and English is greatly inter-linked with smartphones, which allow for instant, engaging sharing of images along with a narrative in the Khmer Unicode with an exponential multiplying impact.

We are right to worry about the vulgar, violent, crude or empty content and posts on social media, particularly on Facebook – from soft to hard pornography, from foodstuff to graphic traffic deaths of mangled bodies and bloodied, cracked skulls – that were initially sent en masse and continue to exist to a horrifying extent, despite social media’s attempts to curb such vulgarity, violence and lewdness.

And the fear of information overload is a real concern. However, in a place like Cambodia during this time, social media, as everyone has acknowledged, has been a major factor in ushering in the Cambodia Spring.

3. The Arab Spring and other mass protests around the world.
We are all copycats, particularly us Cambodians. We witnessed the mass protests elsewhere around the world and they capture our own imagination. It was only an issue of time; July 2013 gave us the opportunity to usher in our own Cambodia Spring.

4. Father-figure vacuum.
The massive outpouring during the passing of King Father Sihanouk Norodom took everyone by surprise, even if some of it was exaggerated high emotions. It brought to consciousness of both Cambodians and the Cambodia watchers of how much King Sihanouk’s rhetoric and treatment of Cambodians over the years as his “children” have shaped our identity as exactly that, oftentimes to our peril in stunting our social and political developmental maturity.

Hun Sen tried excruciatingly hard in filling that void by giving himself grandiose, lengthy titles and naming educational institutions after himself – but basically to no avail, as reflected by the humiliating rejection by the people of him during this July 2013 election.

I’ve stated oftentimes that Cambodia is a land of orphans – literal and emotional ones. We do have a high rate of individuals who do not have a mother, father or both. But even ones who do have a parent, the parent is not parenting, as they themselves are adult infants unconsciously grieving the loss of any parenting figure in their own lives.

Then came Sam Rainsy back from four years of self-imposed exile. Here is a father figure orphaned Cambodians could be proud of to have as their ideal father – intelligent, courageous, dignified, non-violent, nationalist.

Sam Rainsy returned on the heels of the passing of the King Father, who had left a father-figure vacuum. He naturally, unconsciously filled this vacuum in the psychology of needy Cambodians.

5. Tourism and urbanisation of garment workers from the provinces.
The exchange between Cambodians and tourists as well as between the urbanised garment workers with their provincial relatives over the years chipped away at the remote village-urban centre divide of information. The 600,000-strong garment workers have acted as the powerful links between the provinces and the urban centers.

6. Accumulation of human rights abuses.
Cambodia is a sea of human rights abuses. Everyone is impacted by at least one abuse or another. The accumulation of these rights abuses found expression, assisted by the other mentioned factors.

Moreover, the pervasiveness and prevalence of land concessions resulting in violent evictions touched directly most Cambodians, having had 73 per cent of arable land leased to foreign companies by the end of 2012.

On the one rights abuse of land issues alone, the impact was no longer one of hearsay, but each Cambodian knows personally or of a family or close friend who fell victim to the eviction.

7. The knowledge stored in the heart and mind now finds expression.
The other side of the coin of the accumulation of rights abuses is the accumulation of rights knowledge learned and stored over the years in the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people. The Cambodian people gave expression to this accumulated knowledge in this July 2013 elections.

8. The admixture of the above.
Each above-mentioned factor has its own importance, but is limited in pushing the point to tip. The tipping point occurs when these factors come together.

We are now experiencing the Cambodia Spring (preceded by discontent before flourishing) because of the admixture of the above factors.

Theary C Seng is the founding president of CIVICUS, the Center for Cambodian Civic Education.


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