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youth and democracy

Authoritarianism is no longer creeping in Cambodia...

“Authoritarianism is no longer creeping in Cambodia. It is here. It is existing. It cannot be allowed to continue in this way.” - Chris Bowen, MP, on the worsening political situation in Cambodia.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. The King, Norodom Sihamoni, is the Head of State, but does not exercise executive power over the Kingdom. Hun Sen has been Prime Minister since 1985, and represents the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hun Sen’s political narrative has been turbulent; it now reflects a political landscape that has been described by Human Rights Watch as a “threatening environment hostile to free speech and political participation”.

Hun Sen’s pursuit of power has been relentless, culminating in the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on grounds of treason in September 2017 last year, and the successful dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November for allegedly conspiring with a foreign power to topple the government.

CNRP posed the only significant threat to the continuation of Hun Sen’s reign; having made unexpectedly strong gains in the 2013 General Elections, and fiercely contesting the Commune Elections in 2017, the momentum behind CNRP was continuing to build towards the National Elections to be held this year. Political participation in Cambodia has been increasing, with a Commune Election turnout of almost 86% (up from 65% in 2012).

In the absence of a viable opposition party, and a functioning free press, democracy cannot function. Cambodians cannot freely exercise their will in parliamentary elections, nor can they access unbiased and comprehensive information or express their concerns in newspapers or other medias.

Young people under the age of 25 make up 50% of Cambodia’s population. They have the power in numbers to influence decision-making and policy development. They have the ability to positively impact human development, governance and security. They are globally-minded, more educated, and better informed about the challenges facing Cambodian people today.

This power, and these strengths and abilities, however, are rarely recognised or acknowledged. Youth should be able to realise their civic and political rights, freely voice their opinions, priorities and concerns to political leaders, actively participate in safe and fair election processes, and play active roles in meaningful decision-making processes that directly affect them now and will shape our futures.

Australia is hosting the former opposition leader Sam Rainsy this week in New South Wales, where he will be addressing the National Press Club. Rainsy has been living abroad to avoid arrest for a range of sentences that are said to be politically motivated. However, following the dissolution of his former party CNRP, he has launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement.

Suppressing the rights of the Cambodian people to participate in free and fair elections comes at an international cost. The Paris Peace Accord was a foreign policy success story of the 20th century; Cambodia’s current political situation opposes much that the Accord stands for and threatens international law. Rainsy is appealing to the international community, not to oppose the CPP, but rather to act to reinstate and further strengthen the democracy that Cambodians deserve.

Youth participation in political processes is an important avenue for change – young people need to be supported to access their democratic rights to ensure that their voices are heard. We wish to see a world where democracy is achievable, sustainable and accessible, especially across the Asia-Pacific.

Cambodia is an important part of our region, and currently has a strong relationship with Australia. Chris Bowen MP has implored that, “an affront to democracy anywhere is an attack on democracy everywhere”. As Australians, and as young people, we must speak up against injustices that are occurring within our region. We must mobilise our strengths and resources, and grasp opportunities to stand in solidarity with our Cambodian neighbours.