Comment on CAMBODIA: New Political Trend of Positive Change by Our RitthyPosted by: | Posted on: September 13, 2013
Dear Mr. Ou Ritthy;
As current deadlock is on its way, CNRP must not only stick on nonviolent mass demonstration as only one possible means; there are many other possible means waiting ahead. If the CNRP accepted the 55 seats as its base to build the foundation for reform; the time is fast approaching before the round table talk invited by the King. Or the meeting is a pending scenario prior to the formation of the new government? I don’t know how the leaders are trading off in mind but the political communication for public stunt is rolling non-stopped and the leaders must adopt, adjust and adjourn wisely and flexibly.
CAMBODIA: New Political Trend of Positive Change
September 13, 2013
An article by Ou Ritthy published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
In ASEAN countries’ contemporary politics, “ASEAN Spring” describes election as a means to bring about change. This ASEAN’s political trend has impressively transformed the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam (throughout its fight for political freedom), Malaysia, and now Cambodia. Citizens in ASEAN have demanded their governments to become more accountable and their leaders to offer better social living condition, social justice, political freedom, economic opportunities, good governance, and the rule of law.
In Cambodia, Premier Hun Sen’s ruling CPP has been in power for 35 years. Although the preliminary national election results gave the CPP 68 out of 123 parliamentary seats (reduced by 22 seats from 90), the results show clearly the dramatic decline in CPP’s popularity albeit it’s hanging on to power for the next five years following the 50%+1 formula in forming a new government.
As a youth of Cambodia, I see several reasons why the CPP has lost 22 seats.
CPP’s internal factors:
First, the CPP’s political platforms and strategies are outmoded. During the month-long election campaign, CPP leaders and election campaigners advertised old achievements such as 7 January 1979 (Liberation Day from Pol Pot regime), national reconciliation, regional integration, among others. But those old events occurred decades ago. They failed to touch the hearts of the Cambodian people and grab the Cambodian young’s attention. Seventy percent of Cambodians is below 30 years of age. They are new voters with no experience in what CPP and election campaigners talked about.
Worse, before the election, caretaker Prime Minister Hun Sen frequently warned of social turmoil and even a civil war should the CPP lose the election. This had little or no impact on the young who saw only the ruling party with armed forces and the police that can make war.
Second, the CPP has so far adopted Chinese-style economy, or “crony capitalism.” The CPP has made a few wealthy with the hope they provide money to the party so it could help the poor through investments and donations based on party loyalty. Believing in this economic path, the CPP has let its political elite and affiliated tycoons benefit financial leverage by hook or by crook through different sources of income like corruption, exploitation on natural resources, land grabbing, monopolizing imports like gasoline, fertilizer, agricultural and industrial equipment, and monopolizing exports like agricultural products. The more loyalty and financial donations given to the party, the more powerful the political elites and the tycoons maximize their business benefits, the nature of patron-client relationship.
Even though the CPP received much money from those tycoons to maintain its political power, the tycoons have become at the same time destructive for the CPP. A majority of Cambodians has suffered and become frustrated with these CPP-affiliated individuals who engaged in human rights violations, social injustice, unequal economic opportunities, and cultural immunity nationwide.
The term “neo-patrimonialism” best describes the political administration of the CPP-led government.
Michigan State University’s political science professor Michael Bratton says in a neo-patrimonial regime, the political chief executive and his agents exercise authority mainly through personal whims and material incentives rather than through ideology or the rule of law. Within the state, the distinction between private and public interests is purposely blurred; officials occupy bureaucratic posts less to deliver public goods and services than to acquire personal wealth and status.
CPP-affiliated tycoons must be loyal to the ruling CPP to have power to boost their financial leverage. The CPP cohesively structures a family tree among their top political leaders and financial elites, and appoints their children to control significant state institutions and business cooperates from armed forces to youth, mass media to main businesses. This leads to rampant corruption, nepotism and abuse of power in this poorest country in the region.
Third, the increasing widening gap between the rich and the poor has isolated the CPP political elites and leaders from the masses, especially at grassroots level. CPP leaders are so rich they become unconscious of how poor the people are; unemployed they migrated to other countries for work while domestic price of basket goods and service is soaring.
CPP political advisors and commentators have failed to understand the reality of the grassroots. Through CPP controlled TVs, they presented analyses to persuade the people to develop strong faith in the CPP leadership which they said provided the people with social and political stability, and remarkable economic growth. These analysts and other CPP mouthpieces engaged in continuous flattery of the party.
However, people in my remote village in Pursat province asked me what does 7% economic growth mean? They only know that they are poor and are indebted to microfinance institutions and banks. They complained about their cheap agricultural products especially rice. Many villagers migrated to Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea for work. Those with children and relatives working in South Korea are definitely better off economically.
CPP political analysts, advisors and officials who do not understand or dare not tell CPP leaders and policy makers the truth about problems, have rendered the CPP weaker still.
Fourth, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s public promises on combating illegal gambling, fishery, land disputes, corruption, legal reforms, among many other promises, have not been fulfilled because of his corrupt, dishonest, and yes-sir officials and subordinates, who provide incorrect information and advice to the Premier, rendering the latter’s words ineffective an incredible.
Fifth, CPP’s popularity has been brought down by illegal Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia who take Cambodians’ jobs and disturb the livelihood of the local people. There is no statistics of how many Vietnamese immigrants are, and Vietnamese have easily acquired Khmer national identity cards. In the July 28 elections, many Vietnamese were blocked by Khmer voters from different polling stations in Phnom Penh, Kandal, and Prey Veng albeit the Vietnamese had Khmer I.D. cards and had names on the voter lists.
Sixth, CPP leaders seem to fail to understand the new social trend affected by the globalization. Many Cambodians are fed up with the same-same 35-year CPP leadership style in power. Cambodians want something new. New social trend affected by globalization is brought by social media especially Facebook. To me, CPP has taken social media for granted. The CPP is over confident and proud that they can indoctrinate Cambodians via mass media especially state-owned radios and TVs. Many people I met recently said that they have lost faith on CPP-controlled TVs. CPP leaders pay little attention on the emerging social media like Facebook. For instance, while opposition CNRP President Sam Rainsy announced victory in Facebook, the Premier said he did not have a Facebook account and his free time is better spent playing chess rather than logging on to Facebook. Both CPP youths and leaders are not social media savvy as those of the opposition CNRP.
Sadly, when I was working at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, COMFREL, I found on the “Parliamentarian Contact List” of the fifth mandate (2008-2012) only 29 of the 123 parliamentarians (90 CPP members) have e-mail addresses. It was excruciating for me as a youth to see so many of our lawmakers without e-mail addresses in this 21st century. How do they enact laws without ideas and information from different social sectors?
CPP think-tankers should resort to social media savvy forces to educate, inform and raise political awareness and discussion among one million Facebook users in Cambodia, and to understand new sociopolitical trends and needs of today’s new Cambodian voters, the youths.
Last but most important, Premier Hun Sen has become visibly a one-man show among the highest ranking CPP leaders. For the fifth mandate, the Premier Hun Sen puts his photo solo on CPP election posters, ignoring other top leaders like National Assembly President Heng Samrin and CPP and Senate President Cheam Sim. I see this to have caused unspoken pains and silent political resentment and dissatisfaction with the Heng Samrin and Chea Sim groups.
CPP external factors:
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) emerged as a result of political conglomeration of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP). The CNRP has played a zero sum game with the 35-year-ruling CPP in the July 28 national election. Interestingly, this new opposition has adopted democratic socialism as a political economic ideology by designing a political platform that offers social welfare like better health care, lower prices of gasoline and chemical fertilizer, higher salaries to civil servants, garment workers, farmers, elder people, and quality of education to youths. Basically, the CNRP political platforms are pragmatic and related to living conditions and socioeconomic issues of Cambodians. Thus, the CNRP has attracted remarkable support from the Cambodian people.
Unfortunately, except for pragmatism and relevant promising policies, the political behavior and structure of the CNRP are not much better than those of the CPP, taking nepotism, youth’s political representation, internal political competitiveness into consideration. For example, former SRP parliamentarian and now president of the small opposition League for Democracy Party (LDP), Khem Veasna, says that CNRP has gained popularity because the ruling CPP is so bad and many Cambodians have no choice but opt for CNRP instead. He further says it’s the CPP’s weaknesses that provided strength to the CNRP.
In this connection, the CPP should restructure its administration and commit to reforming the judicial system and the political power structure to maintain social justice and the rule of law to eradicate all kinds of inequality, corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. It is not an effective reform to just replace an existing member of parliament, government minister, secretary of state, or advisor with a new face; an effective reform requires change in political behavior and the making of pertinent and relevant policies that benefit the masses.
If the CPP would make some major reforms, the CPP would be more successful in the next national election in 2018. Otherwise, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) puts it clearly in Hun Sen’s Homegrown Political Risk predicted, “the CPP will overwhelmingly win the July 28 national elections. Hun Sen is safe for now, but his sons would be wise to pay close attention to the trajectory of Southeast Asian politics. Strong-arming, corruption, intimidation, and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long. Real leadership is about coupling political reform with economic empowerment. Cambodians deserve as much.”
I see that it is high time for the CPP to commit to making genuine reforms before it is too late.
Youth’s political participation via social media
In general, Cambodians misunderstand and have incorrectly perceived politics as a threat to the individuals. They fail to understand the full meaning of political participation. To them, political participation means to get deeply involved in a political party. But, political participation is simply going to vote, engaging in campaign activity, participating in a political party’s activities, being a member of pressure groups, establishing contacts with legislators, becoming a political candidate, holding a press conference related to political affairs, participating in and arranging demonstrations, forming trade unions and strikes, and so on.
In order to build a democratic culture, a new political culture needs to be cultivated in Cambodian society especially among the young generation. I am in line with outspoken Cambodian human rights defender and political analyst OU Virak who wrote in Facebook, “Cambodia doesn’t need any more political party, not at this stage. What Cambodia needs is a change of political culture: from patronage to merit, away from politics without principle, away from politics of character assassination toward politics of ideas and policies. As it is currently, we have a polarized nation. Instead of continue looking for whom to blame, I think we should start looking for solutions. A change of political culture will take at best 10 more years and at worst many more wasted generations.”
To achieve this, political socialization plays a vital role in cultivating a new political democratic culture. Political socialization is the process by which individuals acquire beliefs, values, and habits of thought and action related to government, politics, and society. Looking into Cambodian society, the agents of political socialization such as family, school, monastery, peer group, mass media and government have played less significant roles to raise political awareness among the people. Family, monastery, and school teach its members not to involve in politics. Mass media and government in Cambodia has not educated the people to understand politics and political information, but indoctrinated them to become basically CPP-working agents.
Nonetheless, positive change is emerging gradually in Cambodian society. According to latest statistics in December 2012 of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, there are 2.7 million Internet users. Of the 2.7 million, one million are Facebook users in Cambodia. Among their peer groups, Cambodian youths have used social media like Facebook to spread political and electoral information; they have done excellent job raising political awareness and planting a new political culture. During many sensitive social events such as human rights violations, land grabbing, electoral issues, protests, political gatherings, mass demonstrations, Cambodian Facebook users have played a crucial role spreading information like wildfire. With Facebook as a mainstream democratic space, youths have functioned as citizen journalists to inform breaking news of sociopolitical and electoral affairs.
Talking on VOA Khmer on September 5, Dr. Lao Monghay, 67, a well-respected Cambodian analyst, expressed his gratification to see new positive change in Cambodian mindset and political behavior. Dr. Lao said Cambodian youths in particular are now involved actively in public affairs, and exercise their rights and freedom with sound responsibility, maturity and dignity. He felt lucky to have lived to see this new social trend.
Although youths have remarkably been interested in and gradually involved in state affairs, so far I have heard many people complain that Cambodian youths have used social media especially Facebook mainly for entertainment and personal issues. However, such belief has failed to realize the potentiality of these youths. They have potential and are patriotic. But they lacked courageous and charismatic leaders to lead them and to represent as models of inspiration and aspiration. A former Cambodian professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins, and former senior economist at IMF, Dr. Tith Narankiri, told VOA Khmer last year that Cambodia suffers from poor leadership, with poor prospects not just in the ruling party, but among opposition leaders, too. South Africa had Nelson Mandela, Burma has Aung San Suu Kyi, but Cambodia has “Class Z” leaders.
Coming back to why Cambodian youths have hidden potential and patriotism, I saw Cambodian youths enjoying themselves immensely when Cambodian businessmen invited Korean pop singers to perform, when they watched entertainment on TVs, or series of special entertaining events and so on. Yet, these same youths, become active and fearless as political and electoral messengers in major social events like election, protest, social conflicts and mass demonstration, et cetera. I would conclude that political and social events plus motivation from courageous charismatic leaders would inspire youths and unearth their talents to be productive. Once again, Cambodians do need heroic and charismatic leaders to take lead as what Prof. Narankiri has so far been advocating for.
With this increasing number of Internet and Facebook users, we cannot deny that the Cambodian government has offered us full freedom to access the Internet everywhere in coffee shops, at carwash, in guesthouses, hotels, at food courts, and so on. About this, I must express my gratitude to my government. But I must admit the government’s blockings of a few politically sensitive blogs like KI media, Sacrava and Khmerization.
Current political climate
The CPP and the NEC’s official result showed that the CPP gets 68 seats and CNRP gets 55 seats in the last election. However, CNRP argued it has won 63 seats based on its own style of seat calculation. Opposition CNRP has persistently demanded a creation of an independent joint investigation committee to find out alleged election irregularities by having international community and the UN as the observers in the committee. The demand has been rejected by the ruling CPP. Thus, an election deadlock occurred as there is no agreeable mechanism to solve the dispute.
Since the election issue is not solved and the CNRP is not ready to move on, neither can the CPP alone move on to the second stage of creating a new parliament for the fifth mandate. According to the constitution, at least 120 parliamentarians have to be present for a new parliament to be convened by the King. Since it is impossible to create a new parliament, so it is impossible to create a new government which the parliament must approve.
Now opposition CNRP opted for Mahatma Gandhi’s style of nonviolent mass demonstration as a means to pressure on CPP to create a joint investigation committee. According to nature of CPP, CNRP and Cambodian voters, they strongly oppose using violent approach to solve the election deadlock. The most likely scenario for CPP and CNRP is sharing power in the legislature, and the bargaining between CNRP and CPP on some major reforms like in National Election Committee (NEC), mass media and legal system in the fifth mandate.
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:
Ou Ritthy is a Founder of Politikoffee and he graduated with BA in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune University in India (2008-2011). He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @ritthyou