First Lady Michelle Obama visits with students at the Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap, Cambodia, March 21, 2015
In light of First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Cambodia, it is time to take another look at the current state of what is possibly the most bombed country in history. After a tumultuous twentieth century, Cambodia is finally developing and integrating into the world economy. However, massive inequalities continue to grow in Cambodian society even as the large numbers of Cambodian youth become increasingly connected to each other through modern technology and education. This has led to a rapid decline in the popularity of Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, and changes in the nature of Cambodian politics.
The current trajectory of Cambodian politics was set during 1992 and 1993 when the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia took over the administration of the country until the holding of successful democratic elections and the completion of the country’s transition from the State of Cambodia to the current Kingdom of Cambodia. Yet even before this time, a constant in modern Cambodian politics has been Prime Minister Hun Sen. A master of politics, Hun Sen has managed to stay in power in a volatile country where political violence is a common occurrence.
While many Cambodians have technically been lifted out of poverty during Hun Sen’s rule, the differences in their incomes have been marginal. According to the World Bank, if the poverty line in Cambodia were to be raised by $0.30, the number of people living in poverty would double to roughly 40% of the total population. Furthermore, although GDP has been increasing at a rate of at least 7% for the past several years, it is projected to start declining over the next two years. With income inequality rising and the government handing out huge land concessions to foreign companies, the political opposition’s assertions that many of Hun Sen’s accomplishments have been made solely for the sake of the perpetuation of his regime hold weight.
With roughly 80% of the population living in the countryside, 45% of the country’s total land leased to private investors, and just 8.8% of children enrolled in upper secondary schools, it is understandable that discontent towards Hun Sen is rising, making the realization of his recent recent pledge to remain in power until 2024 increasingly unlikely. Despite the high growth rates of the last several decades, Cambodia continues to lag far behind every other country in the region in providing basic services to the general population. Indeed, after the 2013 national elections Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost 22 seats in parliament while the main opposition party gained 26.
If Hun Sen fails to take concrete measures to address the many problems plaguing the country’s population, the CPP will continue to lose seats in future elections. Besides the economic inequalities in Cambodia, there are three trends in Cambodian politics that also contribute to the decline of the popularity of the CPP. Most Cambodians today are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge, the role of information technology, especially social media, is growing in elections, and access to public education is increasing.
Although Cambodia has been known by eight different names since its independence from France in 1953, it has been dominated by just two men for the vast majority of this time, King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, and Hun Sen. Sihanouk was able to capitalize on his role as the “King-Father of Cambodia,” while Hun Sen has brought a period of relative peace to a country that had been plagued by 30 years of war prior to his assumption of power. However, over 65% of Cambodians are now too young to remember the Khmer Rouge and have never known a Cambodia ruled by anyone besides Hun Sen. Consequently, he has become increasingly unpopular among Cambodian youth who wish to see an end to the rampant corruption and nepotism of his regime.
This growing disaffection among young Cambodians is fueled in part by the emergence of social media and the growing importance of public opinion in Cambodian politics. While still underdeveloped, the role of public opinion has been increasing since 1993, supported by civil society organizations and, more importantly, social media. In the run up to the 2013 election, the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), relied heavily on new technologies while the CPP took a more cautious approach to it, with primarily younger CPP leaders actively using it. The subsequent election results showed that the Cambodian populace as a whole is becoming more critical of the CPP. Indeed, the CNRP might have won even more seats in Parliament were it not for probable electoral fraudulence.
As the average educational level of Cambodians rises, such cheating gains greater attention in public discourse and citizens demand more from their government. This was echoed in Michelle Obama’s comments while she was in Cambodia advocating the Peace Corp’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Although the First Lady did not directly criticize the regime’s human rights violations, her comments that female education would provide girls with the resources needed to “speak up and talk about injustice and demand equal treatment” as well as “participate in the political life of their country and hold their leaders accountable” certainly convey a strong message to the current leadership in Phnom Penh.
Over the past three decades under Hun Sen’s rule, Cambodia has made great strides from where it was under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. However, now that the country is becoming more connected to the world and news of events, such as the deadly suppression of dissent, spreads around the country relatively quickly, Hun Sen’s days in power may be numbered. As he becomes more and more isolated from the young Cambodian population, he must learn to effectively bridge the divide between powerful elites, foreign interests, and the general population or else the CPP will struggle to retain control.