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'Cambodia Spring' Unlikely, Political Observers Say

Supporters of the Sam Rainsy Party greet onlookers at a busy market during an election rally in Phnom Penh in 2008.
Supporters of the Sam Rainsy Party greet onlookers at a busy market during an election rally in Phnom Penh in 2008.

Many argue that revolution is not on the country's horizon, in spite of sociopolitical conditions that might suggest otherwise.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In the year and a half of turmoil that has followed the Arab Spring of early 2011, policymakers and analysts have turned to the geopolitical map to assess whether or not the domino-effect revolutionary patterns in the Middle East will catch on in other corners of the developing world.

Southeast Asia, a region with political instability and economic underdevelopment on par with that of pre-revolutionary Syria, has proven prone to this scrutiny.

However, there is little support for the notion of a “Cambodian Spring,” observers say.

The Cambodian government has long held the same characteristics that spurred upheaval after upheaval across the Middle East last year: corrupt processes of lawmaking with roots in patronage, a leader whose power seems to approach permanence in spite of “fair” and “regular” election, and a habit of persecution against those who speak out against it.

Still, that has not been enough to overcome the comforts Cambodians have enjoyed since decades of conflicted ended.
Ultimately, the Cambodian people must decide for themselves when it will be will be worth jeopardizing their hard-won relative security in pursuit of a modern democracy.
Faine Greenwood, Author, "Is a Cambodian Spring Approaching? Not Any Time Soon."

“Cambodians are becoming comfortable for the first time in quite a long time,” journalist and blogger Faine Greenwood told VOA Khmer. “They’re making more money, and they don’t want to mess things up… relatively speaking, things are OK.

Greenwood, who lived in Phnom Penh while reporting for the Cambodia Daily, maintains a blog in which she presents her take on the cultural and political affairs of Cambodia and the surrounding region. In a June 5 post, she responded at length to concerns that the flimsy democracy of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen would prompt a widespread rebellion by the country’s people.

“As depressing as this may sound to outsiders, things will likely have to get much, much worse in Cambodia before the average citizen becomes even vaguely interested in jeopardizing the nation’s relative peace and stability in the name of revolution,” she wrote.

Greenwood said she was prompted to write her post by an article in Foreign Policy by former Phnom Penh Post reporter Thomas Mann Miller, who argues that a legitimate political shift is not on Cambodia’s horizon. To support this claim, Miller relies on the general inefficiency of the opposition Sam
Rainsy Party.

“Rainsy's strategy is premised on a shaky gamble: That the Cambodian people will risk the stability gained in recent years to confront a powerful and entrenched elite with control over all arms of the state,” he writes. “Analysts describe such a scenario as farfetched.

Greenwood, however, takes a broader approach to her disdain.

“[Miller] focused primarily on Sam Rainsy, but I thought there were some other real cultural issues and historic issues that have precluded any ‘Cambodian Spring,’” Greenwood told VOA Khmer in an e-mail.

In her essay, she highlights the wide disparity between the people of Cambodia and the revolutionary masses in the Middle East. The general lack of technological connectivity in Cambodia prohibits access from the media that largely sustained the Arab Spring, especially social media websites, which were so imperative for discussions and planning in Egypt and Libya that one Egyptian man named his newborn daughter “Facebook.”

“I think as more and more Cambodians get online, which is going to happen, it’ll be much more likely for something like this to happen,” Greenwood said. “It would be very hard to organize a revolution over Facebook or Twitter in Cambodia. Give it 10 or 15 years.”

Some hurdles, however, appear more difficult to break down. She points out the fact that in spite of countless government acts of repression against his people and its sizeable blip on the international human rights radar, Hun Sen ultimately isn’t widely unpopular in Cambodia.

“He does a good job of being a populist,” Greenwood said. “He’ll go out in the rice paddies. He’ll visit people in the provinces. He’ll be at every school opening, he’ll be at graduations, he’ll be at groundbreakings – he’s visible. People view him as a man…who’s been wounded in battle, as someone who understands them better than, say, Sam Rainsy.”

Greenwood concurs with Miller on the weakness of the Sam Rainsy Party as a viable alternative to Hun Sen’s regime, citing the opposition’s struggle to maintain popularity in recent elections. Sam Rainsy has seen a considerable decrease of support in the country’s larger cities, once a bastion for support of the party’s contrarian views.
Beyond the variable factors, however, she points out one crucial deficiency among the Cambodian people: the lack of any sort of revolutionary spirit. The mindset of many Cambodians, she says, is largely a passive one, a response to years under a leadership for whom free expression was a capital

“Some of the young Cambodians I’ve spoken with have said that their parents have told them all their lives that they shouldn’t fight or speak out – they need to be quiet and keep things as they are,” she said. “So many of these young people are thinking that things are OK right now. That might change.”