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Cambodia's poor bite back upsetting the political establishment

Smart phones reshape Hun Sen's election strategy

Alphonsus Pettit, Singapore

Alphonsus Pettit, Singapore

Published: September 15, 2017 08:51 AM GMT
Cambodia's poor bite back upsetting the political establishment

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raises his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4 during local elections that tested the political temperature of a country rife with tension. In national elections next year, Hun Sen could face defeat. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

The grinding poverty of 20 years ago that typified Cambodia as a failed state has long since disappeared. People are still poor, many dispossessed of traditional lands but education, the English language and smart phones have dramatically changed the political landscape.

Put simply, Cambodians — even the poorest — are informed and that has frightened the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen who face the very real prospect of defeat at next year's election, assuming the polls are held and the opposition allowed to compete.

Those fears were in full flight in recent weeks with the closure of media organizations and the arrest of the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, for treason. His real crime was to speak at a gathering of the Khmer diaspora in a Buddhist pagoda on the outer suburbs of the Australian city of Melbourne where he talked about his election strategy.

His speech was not dissimilar to the types of things opposition politicians would say anywhere else in the democratic world. The fact that it was said before the elections in 2013, and had gone unnoticed since then, made Hun Sen's reaction all the more unfathomable.

It was caught on video, emailed and resurrected on local television four years later and apparently interpreted as a national threat, dressed-up by the Cambodian leader as part of a broader U.S. plot, in league with Kem Sokha, to topple Hun Sen's government.

Cambodians at home were as astonished by the anachronistic reaction as were the diaspora who pray at the Buddhist pagoda on Springvale Road, where the leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) made his speech all those years ago.

There was a time when Hun Sen was indifferent to the politics of the Khmer diaspora and focused his control of the media in Cambodia by maintaining a tight grip around the reports of local journalists who wielded the most influence over the electorate.

Meanwhile, his family and business supporters established an intricate network of television, radio and newspaper interests that carried the government's message.

But the digital age and Internet have rendered that control almost useless. An educated youth — even among the poor — and automatic translations for many different languages into Khmer mean foreign correspondents are now seeing their work appear in a local format with their often critical reach now extended into the local community.

This helps explain why the government has shifted its attentions to media outlets like The Cambodia Daily, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. One foreign journalist was actually accused of being CIA. Another Australian journalist sits in a Cambodian jail charged with espionage. It's a media fight for an impoverished electorate.

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But Hun Sen risks being on the losing side.

In Cambodia, technological change has kept pace with demographic change. Hun Sen has held power because he ended 30-years of war in 1998, guaranteed security and the country prospered. It was an enormous relief for the survivors of a devastating series of conflicts.

To impress voters all he needed to do was to chopper-out to the countryside armed with bags of rice and cartons of cigarettes. That's what poor people wanted and they were loyal.

However, almost a generation of Cambodians have grown up since wars-end, and that has left its mark on the political dynamics as well. A generation that has no knowledge of the tragedy that the Khmer Rouge wrought now represents about 70 percent of the voting population. They want jobs, smart phones, Japanese motorbikes and suburban homes.

Their vote resulted in Hun Sen losing a substantial number of seats at elections in 2013, and a further 10 percent swing against him at polls slated for July next year could tip him out of office. He has repeatedly said he will not hand over power and that without him Cambodia would slide back into civil war. But the problem is his electorate increasingly does not believe him.

Hun Sen's real problems lie within. His family and coterie of businessmen — many of them CPP politicians with seats in the National Assembly — have amassed enormous wealth and they don't mind showing it off. Corruption is rife and land-grabbing has deeply upset the CPP's rural heartland.

Opposition slogans — "Change, Change" — ring as true today as they did in the lead-up to elections four years ago when a more amenable prime minister behaved more like a democratically elected leader is expected to, and the polls fairly reflected the mood of the people.

Since then the youth vote has expanded further alongside the capabilities and reach of the digital world. Hun Sen insists he will rule for another 10 years but question marks have arisen about his health and he has made no secret of his desire to have one of his two eldest sons succeed him.

That may not sit well with the electorate or with other politicians in the CPP, who have their own family ambitions and political agendas.

The ruling party is quite capable of conducting its own in-house surveys and they must not be looking too healthy given Hun Sen's relentless attacks on the CNRP and independent media organisations which have resulted in the closure of at least 15 radio stations and The Cambodia Daily.

Cambodians might be poor but they are informed and despite Hun Sen's latest efforts to ensure power for himself and the handful of businessmen who thrive off of his coat tails, that's unlikely to change between now and election day. In fact, his crackdown on the political alternatives and independent voices may well backfire, incensing a generation of voters who expect better.

Alphonsus Pettit is an historian and writer with an interest in Southeast Asia.

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