Is a Cambodian Spring Approaching? Not Any Time Soon

Borei Keila protesters at the US Embassy.

There has been some talk on Foreign Policy and in the New York Times about the prospect of a so-called “Cambodian spring,” an uprising of popular sentiment in this beleaguered Southeast Asian nation roughly equivalent to the democratic drama that has unfolded across the Middle East. Sounds nice. But could it ever actually happen?

As Prime Minister Hun Sen—who won a decisive, if not exactly fair victory in Sunday’s elections—racks up human rights violations and cracks down on peaceful protesters and land-grabbing victims, it’s easy for outside observers to draw parallels between his retrograde regime and the dangerous, inhumane policies of dictators who have dramatically toppled in recent months in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the average Cambodian can do little but watch as around 20% of the nation is signed away to lucrative-for-some economic concessions, and protesters—including innocent 14-year-old girls—are murdered, wounded or imprisoned at the behest of the government.

Surely some kind of popular uprising isn’t too far off in Cambodia? 

I think any talk of a “Cambodian Spring” is premature, and for a few key reasons.

1. Cambodia is a new democracy (and I do use the “D” word in a very loose sense). Hun Sen’s military coup that put a decisive end to any real opposition occurred in 1997. The Khmer Rouge weren’t fully defeated until the 1990’s. As an outside observer, it can be easy to forget that Cambodia remains a country in the very earliest stages of clawing its way back from one of the 20th century’s worst genocidal regimes. Remember the 2004 US elections, when Republicans trumpeted of George W Bush that America shouldn’t “change horses in the middle of a stream?” Yeah, it’s kind of like that—admittedly with far nastier implications.

Trauma goes a lot deeper than bad memories. Cambodians are likely afflicted with PTSD in huge numbers, and recent studies indicate that PTSD can even be passed down from generation to generation. Young Cambodians—the probable core of any topple-Hun-Sen movement—have grown up hearing the horror stories of their parents and grandparents who managed to survive the profound horror of the Khmer Rouge years. They’ve taken these stories to heart, and have a very visceral sense of how bad things can be.

This kind of upbringing and influence means that even the young in Cambodia are relatively cautious and disinterested in rocking the boat, heeding the horrifying war stories of their elders. Cambodia circa 2012 is appealing indeed when the Khmer Rouge is a relatively recent and visceral memory for a hefty percentage of the population.

Phnom Penh boy.

Almost no one in Cambodia is interested in taking part of any kind of long-lasting and potentially deadly conflict, which a so-called “Cambodian Spring” event would entail. It’s pretty easy to predict that Hun Sen would not go gently into that good night if Cambodians did decide to take matters into their own hands—a sinister capacity he’s been more than happy to demonstrate since the beginning of 2012. You can bet reform minded Cambodians have noticed.

It’s also worth remembering that most of the Middle Eastern nations that have seen democratic upheaval have been relatively stable since the 1960s, and are considerably more wealthy and developed than Cambodia is.

2. People do like Hun Sen. This is difficult for Western observers to believe, but I suspect most Cambodians would back up this statement. It’s true that Hun Sen used intimidation and dodgy tactics to secure a victory this Sunday, but he almost certainly would have won anyway.

Western observers find it baffling that the Cambodian people haven’t yet come together to oust Hun Sen, who has helmed a truly disturbing set of recent tortures, murders and arrests of protesters and dissenters. But many Cambodians positively associate Hun Sen with the relative stability and prosperity they’ve enjoyed since the war years—years of violence, poverty and instability that ended much more recently than the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

He’s also done a good job of reaching out to the Thais and the Vietnamese, and Cambodian relations with these ancient enemies are now in a better place then they’ve been in a very long time. (That these good relations came about in part due to Hun Sen’s cheery willingness to sell off the country to the highest bidder is best dealt with another time).

Hun Sen takes to the rice paddies. (Via the Cambodia Herald)

Further, as Bill Herod, a retired development worker friend of mine who has spent many years in Cambodia pointed out, Hun Sen has done an excellent job of cultivating a populist image and getting out among the people, up to and including splashing about in their rice paddies. When I worked at the Cambodia Daily, Hun Sen seemed to show up at every graduation ceremony and building opening, delivering speeches and shaking hands, accompanied by his trademark folky-yet-bizarre commentary.

He can attribute much of his longevity to his remarkable energy. Hun Sen’s marked willingness to get in the trenches and criss-cross the country in search of support differentiates him from the opposition, which the average person sees as helmed by urbane, champagne-swilling French-educated aristocrats very much unlike themselves. (They happen to be pretty much right).

It’s true that Hun Sen and many in his government were former Khmer Rouge members, and that’s an obvious black mark on their record. It’s also true Hun Sen has done a really excellent job of blocking the passage of justice in the shambolic Khmer Rouge War Tribunals. But it’s worth pointing out that a truly massive number of Cambodians were, in one way or another, involved with the Khmer Rouge. Blacklisting every leader who was somehow involved in the KR might leave Cambodia with a rather paltry number of leaders.

As Herod observed: “The Western media loves to identify him [Hun Sen] as a “former Khmer Rouge” or even a former Khmer Rouge “leader” or “commander,” but the Cambodian people see him as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge horrors – just like them.”

Ruined building at Borei Keila. Occupants were evicted and intimidated by the government.

3. Sam Rainsy is something of a slender reed to base an opposition on. To quote Ou Virak of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, speaking in the Foreign Policy article: “Rainsy is living a comfortable life in exile, making increasingly radical comments in an effort to stay in the minds of international observers rather than ordinary Cambodian people.”

That’s on the money. Currently, Rainsy is something of an armchair-and-Facebook revolutionary-in-exile, enjoying the daring status that his rebellion accords him without having to deal with the immediate dangers and stressors of being an activist on extremely hostile turf. Other opposition leaders (Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, for example) are cast from a similar aristocratic mold.

Many of these urbane opposition leaders weren’t even in-country during the Khmer Rouge era. They host dinners and press flesh in wealthy Western countries with a healthy population of sympathetic supporters of democracy. They are considerably less adept at garnering the support of Cambodians themselves, who can’t afford to attend banquets and who are often rather suspicious of high-brow foreign ideas.

To survive and engender the change it wants to see, the Cambodian opposition will have to do a much, much better job of appealing to your average Sophal or Chanda than it is doing today. After all, the Sunday elections indicated that the Sam Rainsy Party lost ground this year, despite a truly dismal season of CPP violence and repression.

Even when you take voter intimidation and other sneaky tactics into account, that’s an indication that the opposition has a serious populist problem. I would suggest opposition leaders try spending as much time as Hun Sen does walking around behind the ass-end of a water buffalo in the boonies.

I don’t quite understand why the Foreign Policy article cited above failed to mention the promise of Mu Sochua, a charismatic Sam Rainsy Party Parliament member.

If we’re talking opposition leaders, I’d place the dedicated, humane, and intelligent Ms Sochua at the front of the pack of potential change-agents, far ahead of the controversial and often rather shrill Rainsy. When I followed the Borei Keila evictions this January, Ms Sochua was just about omnipresent in the field, showing up at every protest and rally she possibly could, talking to affected citizens with obvious and genuine concern for their welfare, and walking through the filthy camps the evictees had been forced into. This is the populist touch the opposition needs to cultivate.

The Independence Monument.

4. What about all that corruption? Yes, corruption is a truly massive problem in Cambodia, a nation where bribery, “tea money” and ample amounts of wheel-greasing are required to get just about anything done. Hun Sen and his CPP cronies make a lot of money off this corrupt system, creating an ever-increasing gap between the filthy rich and the desperately poor. Doesn’t this piss people off?

Well, yes. And no. Corruption, especially at the higher levels, is often seen as an indication of cleverness. You have to be smart to bilk money from powerful companies and governments, and to a number of  Cambodians, that’s something of a laudable trait.

Many Cambodians feel more envious when they contemplate wealthy and corrupt officials than they do enraged—and perhaps they hope for a chance to “make corruption” themselves when they get the chance.

As Bill Herod observed of the corruption dilemma: “Remember, this is a society more influenced by its feudal traditions than its overlay of democracy.”

Once again, this all comes down to history, both recent and ancient. People in Cambodia are still largely more concerned with basic survival and getting ahead than they are with the finer points of modern governance. When you take their recent genocidal history and current poverty into account, this relative tolerance of corruption becomes a lot easier to understand.

Cambodia would obviously be more wealthy and more functional if corruption wasn’t so built into day-to-day-life—but the elimination of corruption would require a truly massive amount of cultural change, and a hefty pay cut for just about everyone with some semblance of power. I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon.

Downtown Phnom Penh.

So There Won’t Be a Cambodian Spring? 

Not any time soon, I’ll wager. I suspect that many foreigners calling for or advocating a “Cambodian Spring” may be making the mistake of projecting their own feelings and experiences on a people that still remain in the very earliest stages of recovery.

We in the West may think to ourselves of the unquestionably cruel Hun Sen regime: “I could never support that. I would revolt!” But it stands to remember that we are not Cambodian, and that very few of us carry the deep psychological scars a supremely violent revolution and genocide can engender. Nor are we intimately involved in the painful and slow process of rebuilding a country from the bottom up. This is not our battle. It’s theirs.

Things can change in Cambodia, but I suspect that they will not change drastically anytime soon, despite the aura of optimism recent changes in the Middle East and Burma have created. The Cambodian people have already experienced their own worst case scenario—one of the worst that has ever come to pass in the modern era—and are finally beginning to come out the other end of the tunnel.

O’Russei, hive of Cambodian commerce.

As depressing as this may sound to outsiders, things will likely have to get much, much worse in Cambodia before the average citizen becomes even vaguely interested in jeopardizing the nation’s relative peace and stability in the name of revolution. Real policy change in Cambodia will likely happen when Hun Sen wants it to happen and when he feels it will benefit him personally.

As outsiders, the best we can do is support the work of journalists and activists, and attempt to create conditions that make the ardently capitalist ruling classes in Cambodia see treating people fairly as a more profitable bet than shamelessly exploiting them. (Sanctions, such as those imposed by the World Bank in response to the Boueng Kak land grabs, are a good way to get the regime’s attention by affecting its bottom line).

We as outsiders need to encourage and hope for Cambodia’s continuing stability and growth, as it is these two factors that often allow a people to feel secure enough in their day-to-day needs to call for direct action and change. Ultimately, the Cambodian people must decide for themselves when it will be worth jeopardizing their hard-won relative security in pursuit of a modern democracy.

FURTHER READING: Derek Phatry Pan of the Khmerican has written an excellent analysis of why the social media protest movement is unlikely to have much of an impact in Cambodia anytime soon. With Cambodia’s remarkably low Internet penetration rates and a pervasive “culture of fear,” massive public protests like those of the Arab Spring become much more unlikely.

13 thoughts on “Is a Cambodian Spring Approaching? Not Any Time Soon

  1. Great post Faine. You’ve touched on something I’m exploring for another of my posts: ‘We in the West may think to ourselves of the unquestionably cruel Hun Sen regime: “I could never support that. I would revolt!” But it stands to remember that we are not Cambodian. … This is not our battle. It’s theirs.’ Thanks again for a great post.

  2. Reblogged this on undeterminedpath and commented:
    Faine has explained the current situation in Cambodia in a way that I am unable to. She’s also touched on something I’m planning on exploring a little further: ‘We in the West may think to ourselves of the unquestionably cruel Hun Sen regime: “I could never support that. I would revolt!” But it stands to remember that we are not Cambodian. … This is not our battle. It’s theirs.’ Please have a read.

  3. Anirudh

    “But it’s worth pointing out that a truly massive number of Cambodians were, in one way or another, involved with the Khmer Rouge. Blacklisting every leader who was somehow involved in the KR might leave Cambodia with a rather paltry number of leaders.”

    Thank you for spelling this out clearly. For most Western observers, this may seem like an indelible blemish, but most Cambodians are well aware of his past and their own as well.

  4. interesting article. i think it could even go one step further and consider that:
    patronage system has been rooted in Cambodian history ( and not only in Cambodia, the desire for a strong man that solves the problems is common in many cultures/countries).

    I feel as foreigner we dont consider forget and dont know what war means. My grandfather was not interested in politics but he always said anything is better than war. So why would a Cambodian want to go through that hell again?

    Income distribution ( not sure how reliable it is) according to it, Cambodia is not doing that bad.

    Last point, are we sure opposition is going to be much better? As we are little by little seeing in the arab spring, things might not get that much better.

    I finish repeating a comment that Terzani made 20 years ago, he wished that cambodia could have been left alone for some years without any foreign intervention, letting khmers find themselves.

  5. A Friend of Cambodians

    Agreed. Cambodians are done with revolutions. They want to peacefully evolve into a more prosperous and better governed society. Slowly but surely the number of well-educated Cambodian youth who can ask critical questions is growing in urban areas. By the time today’s generation of leaders die off, the new generation will have a chance to improve social justice and broaden political participation in Cambodia. Hopefully, Cambodians won’t need an Arab Spring-like revolution, but bring change through consensus and compromise.

  6. A Cambodian

    First and foremost, it is such an intriguing article to read about my country. As a Cambodian myself, I disagree with the last part that you have mentioned that the Cambodians have learnt their lessons well, not to bring about yet another revolt, and want to maintain stability and growth in this country. I think these are just lame excuses, especially from the government side. Actually, the truth is that every Cambodian understands well what is going on in this country, and hope for a change. Yet, we feel rather intimidated and hopeless in any attempt to bring about change, knowing too well that this puppet regime is influenced by the Vietnamese. It is already too late to save this country.

  7. I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.

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  9. Gil

    I agree with your perspective. An important factor to consider however is the rapid urbanization coupled with influx of thousands of young people into PP each year. Looking for jobs and educational opportunities and simply “better” life. Many become quickly exposed to the alternatives to their rural upbringing. It seems most of them ended up staying in PP whether they found what they’re looking for or not. I wonder if there will be enough opportunities for them and what’s gonna happen as the young and restless continue to grow in their number and in their frustration with the reality of not being able to achieve their dreams. To me, this is one of the major unpredictable factors for Cambodia future, for better or worse.

  10. Sam Campbell

    An interesting and well-informed perspective. A couple of points:
    Any analysis omitting Mu Sochua is, as you point out, lacking. Unfortunately, I don’t think she is currently a potential prime minister due to the cultural sexism of Cambodian society (although I hope that will change). However, not to talk about Kem Sokha is also a significant oversight. He did well in making the opposition more credible during campaigning for the general election, and has faced down CPP intimidation more effectively than Rainsy.
    Rather than a ‘Cambodian spring’, I would argue it more likely that, as pressure builds, a schism within the ruling party brings forth a new regime, possibly using opposition leaders as figureheads, while the same or similar patronage networks pull the strings behind the scenes. The Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, is a man to watch closely, in my opinion.

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