PHNOM PENH —
Having lost his temper from being harassed and having his goods confiscated by police, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian university-graduate-turned-street-vendor, doused himself with paint thinner and set himself on fire. After the death of this young man in December 2010, social upheaval erupted, with the people of the unemployment-plagued Arab country rising up to oppose the one-man rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The authoritarian leader, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, fled the country at the start of the uprising that became known as the “Jasmine Revolution.”
The so-called Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to other Arab countries that were under dictatorial rule. Tunisia was followed by Egypt, then ruled by Hosni Mubarak, and Libya ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Mubarak had led Egypt for 30 years, while Gaddafi led Libya for 42 years. Moreover, the subsequent collapses of a number of other governments, notably in Ukraine, have been put down to the influence of the Arab Spring.
These developments have not gone unnoticed in Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for more than 30 years. With agitation in the ranks of his government palpable, Hun Sen declared publicly that if opposition groups in the country followed the model of Ukraine or Libya, the country would inevitably slide into civil war.
The prime minister’s words came as his Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party were discussing the formation of a new National Election Committee. The opposition and ruling parties were finally talking after the 55 lawmakers of the Rescue Party had ended a year-long boycott of the National Assembly following elections in July 2013.
This election result has haunted the Cambodian government, with the Rescue Party making unprecedented gains and demonstrators taking to the streets to protest alleged fraud at the polls.
Large-scale demonstrations have now come to end, thanks in part to a fatal crackdown by armed authorities, as well as a judicial crackdown that saw opposition leaders jailed. But still, the people in this poor country have occasionally heard a new phrase—“colored revolution.” The phrase, reminiscent of the imagery of the Arab Spring and other past uprisings, has been used by Hun Sen himself, as well as top military commanders loyal to his regime.
But when Prime Minister Hun Sen talks about colored revolution, he doesn’t dwell on the link to popular demonstrations that have toppled government in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Instead, he has repeatedly focused on the instability that he says would follow if his government was no longer in charge of Cambodia. Speaking recently at the inauguration of a bridge across the Bassac River in Kandal province, the prime minister lambasted the leadership of the Rescue Party for its weak negotiation skills in the post-election period.
“I still continue to say that instability will come to the country if other political parties lead the country,” he said. “The culture of dialogue barred merely war-like words! But I dare to claim that if the leadership style is like that, the instability will take place and [people] will run and crawl once again.”
Political and social analysts anticipate that a future “Colored Revolution” in Cambodia could be spurred by the population impatient with a long-standing leadership that has overseen a growing gap between rich and poor. On the other hand, it could also derive from nationalist sentiment regarding territory, immigration and foreign interference.
Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University and a political analyst, said that the highly sensitive issue of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam could be used to instigate Cambodian people to rise up against the government.
The ruling party and the opposition are in a political tousle over maps of the un-demarcated borderline, where brief clashes broke out in June over farmland. The government—previously criticized for over its handling of immigration—has begun to arrest and deport people deemed illegal immigrants.
“We saw already that only one vegetable seller could start a colored revolution in Tunisia,” Sok Touch said. “So, what about the border issue? This is a historical issue and involves nationalism. Thus, it’s a concern.”
While Ukraine’s former President Vicktor Yanukovic’s downfall was linked to his deference to Russia and his rejection of a free-trade pact with the European Union, he was also accused of massive corruption and cronyism.
Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said that similar allegations could be made against the Cambodian government, and also against Vietnam’s Communist Party. However, these Southeast Asian governments would find some protection, for now at least, in the fact that their economies are seeing healthy growth.
“But still, if the corruption gets worse and the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger, it could be a basis for many people to become angry,” he said. “Especially the poor people, whose children must try hard to work in overseas countries, where they are looked down upon by others.”
He predicted that political and social upheaval would not be a risk for Cambodia in the immediate future, but it may occur in the next few years if the government fails to heal the hardships of Cambodian people, including rising inequality and landlessness.
However, Ou Virak said, the border issue is the most sensitive. “But I can’t see that this will happen before [elections in] 2018,” he added. “The people are waiting until that time for making a decision via the elections if they want to change the government.”
Kem Ley, a political analyst, said the Cambodian government should look at the political and social crises that caused the uprisings elsewhere. The government should seek to eliminate those causes, rather than using force to suppress the people, he said.
“If we want to curb this, it will not be about planning to use force to prevent it. It’s about how to cut off the roots and the symptoms of the possibility of the emergence of a colored revolution.”
Kem Ley noted that the government’s own use of the term “colored revolution” is a strategy to intimidate those who wish to criticize the government’s handling of issues like landlessness and the border. He said this approach was self-serving for a prime minister concerned about following the fate of leaders like Gaddafi, who was killed by an angry mob of his own people.
“Actually, the power, wealth, and connections of [Hun Sen] and his group are stronger than those of [the people],” he said.
“But still, if we look at Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, Suharto’s family, the rich and the generals have lived comfortably although Suharto was toppled. Now, their children continue to do politics and they almost win [elections]. Thus, he [Hun Sen] must learn the lessons from other countries where peaceful changes have taken place without chaos and retaliation.”
Analysts also highlight that that the Cambodian government has in the past used different strategies to retain power, including often warning of a return to the devastating Khmer Rouge-era, a highly emotive subject for Cambodians.
Speaking about colored revolution is the latest strategy in this mould, likely in response to seeing hundreds of thousands of demonstrators throng Phnom Penh’s streets both before and after the close-run election. During that time, anyone living in Phnom Penh, particularly in the area around Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence, could often hear chants of “change or not change!” and “Hun Sen! Please step down!” All the while, the prime minister stayed silent.
The demonstrations and the chanting ended on July 15 last year, when opposition activists clashed with private security guards hired by the local government close to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, a space officially designated for demonstrations. There were injuries on both sides, and seven opposition lawmakers were arrested.
Hun Sen, a renowned tactician, has through negotiations brought legitimacy to his government, with the opposition taking their seats in Parliament. Freedom Park, for now, is a silent place, without chanting or shouting, and no signs of color.