Cambodia: Politics and a legacy of trauma

Cambodia’s traumatic history has often been used as a tool for power among rival politicians in the country, particularly when elections are approaching. This article, however, argues that due to the passage of time, such tactics in relation to the Khmer Rouge. have started to lose ground, in particular owing to demographic redistribution, social media outreach, and changes in perception.

A post-Khmer Rouge political order

Between April 17, 1975 and January 6, 1979, at least 1.7 million people, or about a quarter of Cambodia’s population, died at the hands of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK), or Khmer Rouge (KR) regime. In its quest for an agrarian utopia, the KR forced people to abandon their money, religion, commercial activities, and private property. The KR tortured and killed those it deemed critical of the regime, as well as former government officials. Following Vietnam’s triumphant invasion in early 1979, Cambodia began to rebuild its country from scratch. Vietnam then installed its former KR cadres as the heads of a transitional government and named the new administration the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The PRK was a communist regime with a less stringent economic model, as it reintroduced currency and private trade. Hun Sen was appointed prime minister of the PRK in 1985.

Hun Sen’s leadership, together with the long-standing presence of Vietnamese troops, was challenged by the tripartite government-in-exile, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which formed in 1982 and consisted of the Khmer Rouge, King Sihanouk’s coalition FUNCIPEC, and Son Sann’s Khmer People’s National Liberation (KPNL). An international impasse and internal challenges brought Hun Sen’s government into negotiations with these insurgent groups, and the parties signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, which paved the way for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to intervene the following year to enforce a ceasefire and, in 1993, to arrange democratic elections.

Hun Sen lost the 1993 elections to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of FUNCIPEC, but he threatened to stage a coup, leading King Sihanouk to intervene by proposing an unprecedented power-sharing coalition with Prince Ranariddh. Throughout the 1990s, Hun Sen worked to defeat the Khmer Rouge politically by employing his DIFID strategy—Divide-Isolate-Finish-Integrate-Develop—on the remaining Khmer Rouge hardliners in the jungle, whereby in 1997 some top KR leaders and all former KR troops were granted forgiveness and reintegrated into society. These controversial amnesties inevitably allowed for political stability, peace, and development in the country—but at the expense of long-awaited accountability and transitional justice for victims and their families.

Hun Sen employed his DIFID strategy not just against the Khmer Rouge, but also against his subsequent political opponents. Just months ahead of the second round of elections, in 1998, he led what was arguably a coup against his co-premier Prince Ranariddh, which resulted in a weakened royalist party. In 2009, he forced Sam Rainsy, another strong opposition leader, into self-imposed exile by charging him with destruction of public property and falsification of public documents. Hun Sen’s Machiavellian approach to accumulating and wielding political power has made him the longest serving non-royal prime minister in Southeast Asia and one of the longest serving elected leaders in the world.

Despite credible criticism in regard to his aging leadership, Hun Sen has used his incumbent political leverage to establish an impressive sociopolitical order in a once-fragile, war-torn state. Under this rather oppressive democracy, people, media, and civil society can enjoy their business as usual provided that their activities do not challenge Hun Sen’s power. This arrangement has ushered in a period of impressive economic growth and social stability.

Political exploitation of the traumatic past 

Yet the Khmer Rouge regime has left a legacy of horrific memories for all those who managed to survive. The survivors and their descendants’ deep traumas and hatred are directed at KR cadres and their associates who are held responsible for the regime. However, pathways to establish a war crimes tribunal to hold top KR cadres accountable were tensely debated for years regarding the tribunal’s scope, formation, and composition. Paradoxically, some of the country’s highest-ranking officials are themselves former KR cadres—either those who, including Hun Sen, helped to overthrow the KR or who were given amnesty in the 1990s. Therefore, many believe that an attempt to bring any of them to trial would trigger chaos and instability in the country.

Following multiple rounds of intense negotiations, the hybrid KR tribunal, or Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, was formally launched in 2006 with a mandate to put to trial the top and most responsible leaders of Democratic Kampuchea who had committed atrocities. However, so far only one perpetrator, Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, head of KR’s S-21 Prison, has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The aging of remaining defendants and financial constraints cast doubt on whether the tribunal can complete its job.

Political exploitation from Khmer Rouge commemoration has always loomed large during election campaigns. The propaganda of Hun Sen’s incumbent party for the last 30 years has consistently centered on its victory over the Khmer Rouge and the restoration of the nation. For example, just months prior to the 2013 national elections, Hun Sen criticized Kem Sokha, deputy of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), for denial of the Khmer Rouge, rousing tensions and a nationwide demonstration. He then asked the legislative branch to enact a law making it a crime to deny the KR regime in an effort to undermine Kem Sokha’s popularity. He also warned, in an attempt to evoke fear among KR survivors, that a civil war could erupt if the opposition were to win the election.

In the months leading up to the 2013 national elections, the CNRP also sought to manipulate KR survivors psychologically in order to gain more votes and to delegitimize the ruling party. It accused several current government officials of being former KR cadres and of interfering with the independent functioning of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. The CNRP also pledged to bring all ex-KR cadres in office to trial.

A paradigm shift of power relations

Fear, trauma, and a suppressive mentality inherited from the Khmer Rouge regime have stunted people’s resistance and self-expression. Before the 2013 elections, most Cambodians exercised self-censorship, refraining from voicing their criticism of the ruling party in exchange for the status quo of safety, stability, and good relations with party-dominated authorities at the grassroots level. Few demonstrated their support for an opposition party publicly, and political discussion and debate in the public sphere were seen as taboo.

However, since a few months before the 2013 elections, the situation has begun to change. Cambodians have started to break out of their culture of fear, silence and political ignorance and move toward a culture of civic engagement. Many of them robustly participated in opposition campaigns, demonstrations, and the elections themselves. The public domain has become a common place for political discussion and expression of dissatisfaction with the government despite constant threats and warnings from the local and national authorities. Never before has the electorate been more politically mature so as not to be immobilized by its traumatic past. As a result, it comes as no surprise that the ruling party’s seats in the National Assembly were heavily reduced—from 90 in 2008 to 68 in 2013—while the remaining seats went to the CNRP.

What constitutes the change?

Demographic redistribution, social media outreach, and perceptual changes may be the most important determinants of this shifting dynamic. First is the emergence of a vibrant “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomer” generation, born after 1979 and now between the ages of 18 and 30 who account for 36 percent of 9.6 million registered voters; of those, about 1.5 million are first-time voters. Unlike their parents, they are neither the victims of KR traumatic memory nor of Hun Sen’s civil war rhetoric, but instead are victims of social injustice, corruption, nepotism, and joblessness. They are much more active, enthusiastic, bold, and demanding than the previous generation.

Fast-growing Internet penetration is another main catalyst, with about 2.7 million Internet users in Cambodia, or about 18 percent of the population; of those, about one million users have Facebook accounts and access to numerous other social media platforms. While traditional media (local television and newspaper) often generate pro-government and obsolete content, social media features more varied content, and users can comment, share, and express their opinions without fear of censorship. Sensitive issues such as human rights violations and land grabbing, which are concealed on traditional media, are often accessible online, especially via Facebook and other social networking sites. This growing access to information turns Internet users, particularly youths, who were once apolitical into political actors, as seen in their online comments and mobilization efforts during election campaigns and post-election gatherings. While accessibility to the Internet is still limited, its effects can multiply when its information is spread to relatives and neighbors who lack access. As a result of this trend, the opposition dominates in most of the populous provinces/cities where access to the Internet and information is most prevalent.

Last but not least is perceptual change. A landslide election victory in 2008 allowed the ruling party to form a single government. This led its officials to be overconfident and to abuse power at the expense of the masses. The government’s failure to deal with growing discontent regarding deforestation, human rights violations, land grabbing, rampant corruption, and poor governance, together with technology advancement and a growing youth population, led many to be critical and dissatisfied with those in power.

Whither a crossroad? 

Discontent and the CNRP’s populist propaganda, such as pledges for pay raises and the promise to address aforementioned issues, now leave the ball in the opposition’s court. Although the ruling party is still in power, a reduction of 22 seats in the National Assembly shows its waning grip on the country—and without even taking into account alleged election irregularities in its favor, such as a biased national election committee, ghost voters, and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from the voter list. The opposition has now boycotted the National Assembly convention and its subsequent legislative meetings and has gone ahead with mass demonstrations and strikes nationwide, drawing a large pool of supporters and calling into question the government’s legitimacy.

The government is at a crossroads: either it commits to comprehensive reforms against the interests of its members to prevent losing more seats to the opposition, or it uses its force to crack down on demonstrators and the CNRP. A series of recent violent crackdowns by security forces on opposition supporters and labor activists signal the latter. Ideally, vastly diminishing support should serve as a wake-up call for the government to recognize the repercussions of its obsolete threats, oppression, and reality distortion campaign strategies. Rather, it should opt for inclusive reforms as demanded by the public, and the opposition party should serve as the government’s watchdog and persistently advocate for these reforms. The political destinations of both major parties will be defined by the 2018 elections.

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