Disenchanted Young Cambodians Flex Their Muscle in Elections

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Young supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) shout slogans during the general election campaign in Phnom Penh, July 14, 2013.

Cambodia's young voters have used the weekend ballot to express their disgust over corruption, human rights abuses, land grabs and the lack of a free press, sending a clear message to long serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to shape up or ship out, analysts say.

Many believe that the young voters fueled the backlash against Hun Sen's 28-year rule by nearly toppling him from power.

In Sunday's national elections, they played a key role in stripping the strongman's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of its two-third majority in the National Assembly and in nearly doubling the number of opposition seats in the legislature, according to early returns cited by the CPP.

"It is too early to say that yesterday's elections represent a turning point in Cambodia's contemporary political history," said Milton Osborne, a Southeast Asian expert at the Lowy Institute, an international policy think tank in Sydney, Australia.

"But it may not be too early to suggest that the apparent emergence of an identifiable urban and youth vote will be of major importance when the next election is held," he wrote on his blog.

The CNRP nearly doubled its share of seats in the 123-member parliament from 29 to 55 in the hotly contested elections compared with CPP's 68 seats from 90 previously.


Early analysis of the election results confirms trends that Hun Sen and the CPP retain support in Cambodia's rural areas while the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), reinvigorated by its leader Sam Rainy's return from self-exile in France, had its most important support in Phnom Penh and among younger voters, Osborne said.

"These are trends likely to continue in the future as Cambodia's demographic profile is overwhelmingly weighted towards a cohort under 30 years of age," he said.

According to official figures, more than one-third of the nearly 10 million registered voters are aged between 18 and 30 years and did not witness the atrocities during the notorious Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979, the Vietnamese occupation, the civil war that followed or Hun Sen's role in ending it.

In the run-up to Sunday's elections, Hun Sen's threat of a return to the bloody era of the Khmer Rouge or a civil war failed to resonate with the young Cambodians whose memories of the persistent violence of the 1990s have also been fuzzy.

But this did not stop a group of young voters, who one rights activist called the "post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers," from expressing their anger when their names were not on the voters' list at a polling station in Phnom Penh. They were seen overturning two police cars and setting them ablaze.

The young Cambodian voters appeared to be attracted to the CNRP and other opposition groups without any rewards or inducements and, in fact, had used their own money to fuel their campaign, according to the Cambodian wing of Transparency International, a global corruption research group.

The research group, which deployed more than 900 observers to about 400 polling stations across the country on voting day to gauge the quality of the elections, said it "observed a new dynamic" throughout the election campaign—"the increased political participation of the youth and young voters."

"Thousands of enthusiastic young supporters are involved in the parties’ rallies across Cambodia. Young activists of the CNRP and the League for Democratic Party (LDP) are donating money to their parties and paying for their own expenses when joining in on the campaign rallies," it said.

On the other hand, it said, the CPP has "significant funds set aside for their supporters’ transportation and meal costs when taking part in their political campaigns."


In the run up to the elections, Transparency International Cambodia had hosted a youth forum attracting over 600 youths in the "fight against corruption and promoting transparency and integrity."

"They learned about the causes and impacts of corruption on their life and how to promote integrity and participate in building an equitable and accountable society that holds the leaders accountable and where the people can enjoy all rights that they deserve under a fully democratic society," said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

They were particularly told that the July 28 election was one of the occasions where "every citizen can have his or her voice heard, so we should all actively participate in this major event,” he said.

"Many young Cambodians recognize that successive governments have made some progress over the last three decades, but they want a greater say in how their country develops," Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, said in a report.

They are calling for equal opportunities and an end to corruption, for land and natural resource grabbing to stop, and for greater respect for human rights and the rule of law, he said.

Those in urban areas are using online social networks to access information, discuss ideas and organize, bypassing mainstream media, which is either government controlled or exercises self-censorship, Abbott said.

"[T]his less fearful young population presents Cambodia with a potentially pivotal opportunity, one that the next government would do well to seize," he pointed out.


In the run up to the elections, many young Cambodians have also been taking a more prominent role in protests against corruption, illegal forest destruction and forced evictions of the urban poor from their homes and land.

Among them is Yorm Bopha, who was imprisoned in December 2012 after receiving a three-year sentence on apparently politically motivated charges for protesting government land grabs that have adversely affected 700,000 Cambodians.

Bopha, 29, is one of the leaders of long-term protests against illegal evictions of residents of the Boeung Kak area of Phnom Penh by a Chinese company and a local firm closely linked to Hun Sen.

This and other similar protests are a popular response to land concessions granted by the government to well-connected domestic and foreign companies, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.

Possession of land is frequently achieved through forced evictions and evictions without just compensation, carried out with the help of government security forces and the courts, it said.

The opposition resurgence in the elections "is due largely to a younger generation who refuse to be cowed or bought off," said the Wall Street Journal in an opinion piece. "For older voters peace and stability were paramount, but younger voters have higher aspirations."

Despite per capita income of less than U.S. $3,000, Cambodians are "sophisticated enough to understand the unfairness of CPP leaders dripping with gold and jewels getting out of luxury SUVs to distribute largesse in return for votes," it said.

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