Cambodia is changing. The victory of the current Prime Minister Hun Sen in the July 28 elections was officially ratified on Sept. 8, but the opposition has continued protesting. Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), warned the protests would not stop until an independent investigation into the election results is carried out.
The wave of protests, which started on Sept. 7, indicates how the churn of social awareness, bubbling under the surface in Cambodia, apparently cannot be stopped.
“Cambodia is undergoing a major phenomenon never seen in our history, a Cambodia flourishing, if you will,” said Theary C. Seng, founder of the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation, based in the capital Phnom Penh.
She witnessed a budding new season for the country, she said, when she rode on the back of the pickup truck taking opposition party leader Sam Rainsy from the airport to Democracy Square upon his return from exile on July 19.
“Crowds in the hundreds of thousands openly, fearlessly convulsed onto the truck and stage, demanding change. Their passion, palpably pulsating and electrifying the Cambodia air, acts to diminish the prior existing fear,” Seng said.
Long-term psychological trauma from the killing fields of Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot in the 1970s, to recent mass land seizures, and labor safety violations, among other traumas, seems to be finding a way out for reconciliation.
Nearly 20,000 people participated in the initial Sept. 7 peaceful protest, organized by the CNRP in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Rainsy, called the current poll results, giving the CPP a close advantage of 68 seats over 55 seats for the CNRP, a fraud.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a meeting with Rainsy on Sept. 14 at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, rejected investigations into the elections.
“The National Election Committee has doused even the slimmest hope that thousands of electoral irregularities would be investigated in a serious and impartial manner,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, on Sept. 10.
The director of a Cambodian NGO, the Advocacy and Policy Institute (API), Sinthay Neb, said that the opposition still has made a breakthrough.
“I don’t think the opposition party was ready to win the election this time. But what they have so far is a very big achievement.” Neb said.
Neb believes people have more courage to support the opposition. He said many young people from rural areas who work in the city, called their parents, saying, “Mother and father, you have to vote for party number 7 [the opposition party], otherwise I won’t transfer any money to support you.”
Neb told of a lady at a market who accused a vendor of cheating her. Other people asked why she was not scared and she replied, “Now my party won enough votes, so I am not scared anymore.”
Vibol Touch, the executive president of Cambodia National Rescue Foundation based in the United States, said young people especially have been aware of the change in the political arena recently.
“They flock to meetings to understand the stance of the parties and how it relates to their daily lives and future,” Touch said.
Young people represent over 30 percent of the electorate in Cambodia. Of the 9.5 million registered voters, 3.5 million are between 18 and 30 years of age, and 1.5 million of them are first-time voters.
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth, a retired political science expert from the University of Guam, and now based in the United States, said many young people do not like the ruling CPP.
“Many have grown weary of the CPP and of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Even those who sympathize with Hun Sen hint that it may be time for fresh leadership,” Peang-Meth said.
But apart from the youth and the opposition, a successful change in Cambodia will also depend on whether Sen, who has been ruling the country for 28 years, makes any compromises with his opponent. If not, according to one analyst, an uprising could follow.
“There will be a Jasmine spring, but it will not be at the same level that you would see in Libya or Egypt,” said Lawrence Gundersen, professor of history and political science at the University of Tennessee.
Gundersen explained there are two reasons why he thinks it would be different: first, fear of intimidation and second, Cambodians are Buddhists. The Buddhist way is to show understanding and nonviolence.