Youth Engagement Can Help Save Cambodians’ Democratic Rights: Analysts

Left to right: Mory Sar, co-founder, and vice-president of the Cambodian Youth Network; Olivia Enos, a policy analyst at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation; and Courtney Weatherby, a Southeast Asia research analyst at the Stimson Center. The panelists talked about Cambodia's human rights situation at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, May 29, 2018. (Hong Chenda/VOA Khmer)

Young Cambodians are eager for change and represent a large voting demographic, but their growing activism can also put youths at risk.

Cambodia’s energized youth activists and large demographic of young voters could become key actors in halting the country’s democratic backsliding, political analysts said, though they warned that challenging the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) could also put youths at serious risk.

“Youth, young people under 30, make up 65 percent of the total population. They play an important role, they are the agents to make a difference, to make a change in Cambodia,” said Mory Sar, co-founder, and vice-president of the Cambodian Youth Network.

He said that while the long-ruling CPP government is confident of its ability to quash all political opponents - as it has done ahead of the July 29 general elections - it worries about a people’s power movement and is unnerved by the lack of effective control mechanisms over a restless youth population hankering for change.

“Now, even [after] they dissolved the opposition party, they try to use many strategies to take the people out,” Sar said while speaking at a recent expert panel discussion on Cambodia’s human rights situation held at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

Mory Sar is a co-founder and vice-president of the Cambodian Youth Network. (Hong Chenda/VOA Khmer)

Many youth activists have in recent years been galvanized by the growing popularity of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), while the rapid expansion of social media and Cambodia’s robust civil society have enabled activists to promote their causes.

Courtney Weatherby, a Southeast Asia research analyst at the Stimson Center, said the youth groups were not yet organized enough to peacefully promote and significantly strengthen democratic rights in Cambodia, adding that they would require further training and support.

“One thing that we’ve seen through a variety of youth organizations present in Cambodia is that there is a lot of excitement about what to do, but organizational capacity and understanding of how to effectively express concerns is something that youth all over the world, not just in Cambodia, often struggle with,” she said.

“Outreach activities are very important in providing youth who are interested in political activities with the useful skill sets so that they can constructively engage with the government and with other actors whose behaviors they are trying to impact,” she said.

Courtney Weatherby is a Southeast Asia research analyst at the Stimson Center. (Hong Chenda/VOA Khmer)

CPP struggles to control youth vote

Yet, any political appeals to youth voters or youth campaigns calling for a return to multi-party democracy in Cambodia would quickly run up against a determined ruling party.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP has held on to power for decades by using force and intimidation against the opposition, control over all branches of government, and by honing a pervasive social-control mechanism that guarantees a majority of the votes on village and neighborhood levels.

These voter control tactics, however, seemed to be faltering during the 2013 elections and 2017 commune elections, when the CPP only narrowly beat the CNRP in contested election results.

Growing youth engagement during the 2013 election, according to many observers, contributed to the reduction of the CPP’s majority in the National Assembly from 90 to 68 seats.

According to the National Election Committee, youth voters, aged between 18 and 30, represented 36 percent or 3.5 million of all 9.5 million registered voters in 2012, some 1.5 million of whom were first-time voters.

Students register to participate in a campaign by the National Election Committee, NEC, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

The 2013 polls lead some researchers to conclude that a popular united opposition proved difficult to counter with the CPP’s tried-and-tested control mechanisms, which are focused on older voters and village communities rather than Cambodia’s increasingly young, mobile and more educated electorate.

Taking no chances ahead of the 2018 vote, the CPP launched a full-on crackdown last year, dissolving the CNRP and jailing its leader Kem Sokha. Authorities closed down and undermined independent media and civil society, while increased online censorship and controls have resulted in the arrests of activists.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has also tried to gain popularity with students and the young urban workforce by implementing educational reforms and raising the minimum wage.

Recently, the CPP launched a new drive to ensure voter loyalty of its supposed 5 million party members and their families, an investigation by VOA found, and instructions were issued to recruit “new members, especially youth, to support the party.”

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Interview: Mory Sar Says Cambodian Youths Are Voices of Change

Greater involvement carries greater risk

Sar said more Cambodian youths should register in order to exercise their democratic right to vote, while they should become better informed of the political issues that matter to them. Some may also want to do grassroots volunteering in order to promote their communities’ democratic interests.

Sar warned, however, that any growing youth activism should be done in a careful way in Cambodia’s political climate in order to avoid repressive reactions from authorities.

“They cannot do any public campaigns anymore in this current situation,” he told VOA after the panel discussion. “Young people need to find alternatives to participate meaningfully in politics.”