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Time for Change

Young People the Key to Democracy in Cambodia

By Ella Trickey
Cambodia Research Officer
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Since the 1979 liberation of Phnom Penh and the fall of one of the most brutal communist dictatorships in history, the evolution of democracy in Cambodia has been a slow and chequered process.

While some significant strides have been made, Cambodia has yet to overcome its cruel political legacy, manifesting in a continuing pattern of state-sanctioned human rights abuses and political violence. A looming seismic generational shift has the potential to finally shake off the weight of that history.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander and current leader of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), has been in power since 1985, making him the world’s longest serving prime minister. According to Human Rights Watch, Hun Sen and the CPP’s rule “relies on security force violence and politically motivated persecution of opposition members, activists, and human rights workers”.

Growing discontent has fuelled political tensions which boiled over following the 2013 general election. The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition party, came closer than ever before to unseating Hun Sen, winning 55 of the 123 seats in the assembly. Following its narrow loss, the CNRP accused the government of perpetrating election fraud. They claimed that the CPP-dominated Constitutional Council failed to report thousands of voting irregularities and incidences of misuse of temporary voting cards. Mass demonstrations ensued, continuing from July 2013 to June 2014, centring mainly around Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, many of which resulted in violent conflicts between protesters and police.

As the voices of dissent have grown louder, government efforts to silence them seem to have intensified. Speaking at the launch of ASEAN’s 2017 report, Death Knell For Democracy, Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson commented that, “I think that the lesson Hun Sen took from the 2013 elections is that it is better to be feared than loved [...] And if you don’t like [him], to make sure there are no other choices”.  

Now Cambodia is poised to enter a new election cycle, and potentially a new phase in its history, with commune elections approaching in June and a general election in 2018.

Meanwhile, Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy has recently resigned, opening the way to a new era in the nation’s politics. Rainsy founded Cambodia’s first ever opposition party, and has been the figurehead of Cambodian political opposition for decades. He and Hun Sen have been dubbed by some commentators the “Tom and Jerry” of Cambodian politics, mired in a never-ending cycle of antagonism which some have argued to be counterproductive to enacting real social change. The uncertain future of the party presents both a challenge and an opportunity, and could pave the the way for a new generation of political leaders.

That generation is brimming with energy and potential. Cambodia has one of the world’s youngest populations, two-thirds of its people are under thirty. Despite knowing only one Prime Minister in their lifetimes, they remain politically engaged and optimistic about the future of their democracy.

Young people are distinct from their parents’ generation in a number of meaningful ways. Since they don’t share their parents’ experience of living under a dictatorship, they tend to be more willing to participate in political discourse. They are also more educated than previous generations, enjoying the benefits of an education system that has been rejuvenated in recent decades thanks to a combination of government and NGO intervention. Increased access to smartphones and the internet are also expected to be hugely influential in the next election. The number of Facebook users in Cambodia is growing rapidly every year - currently there are around 3.4 million Cambodian Facebook accounts, the vast majority of which belong to under 30s. The advent of social media platforms like Facebook has allowed young people to circumvent the predominantly CPP-controlled media and speak out on the issues that matter to them.

The Cambodian political landscape is at a crucial tipping point. Young people are restless, hungry for change, and ready to make their voices heard in the next elections.

Oaktree is committed to empowering young people in Cambodia, particularly through education initiatives and strengthening youth leadership. Support Oaktree’s work by signing up for or donating to Live Below the Line


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