I arrived in Cambodia on July 24th, four days before the election. This was my first experience witnessing democracy in Cambodia and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some people suggested I wait until after the elections to go when the dust settled. Others said it’s the aftermath that will be problematic. I never would have expected that five months later I would be a witness to history.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been in power for over 30 years and were being challenged by the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Mr. Sam Rainsy and Mr. Kem Sokha. The CPP won the election—68 seats to CNRPs 55 seats. The CNRP narrowly lost the election and claimed widespread election irregularities and has since demanded an independent investigation on the irregularities and a re-election. The latest rhetoric now calls for the Prime Minister to step down.
When I first visited in 2004 I asked people what they thought of the political situation and what their everyday life was like. Everywhere I went people would first look around to see if anyone was listening, then whisper in a hushed voice what they really thought and how difficult their life was. Now the whispers have turned into shouts. From the top of their lungs they are now saying “HUN SEN MUST GO!” What a remarkable change. Even six months before the election some say this never would have happened.
What’s happening right now is that while the country has enjoyed relative stability for over the last 30 years, the pot has been simmering with discontent. To be sure, we should give credit to the current government for lifting Cambodia out of the hells of the Khmer Rouge nightmare, ridding the country of millions of landmines, bringing relative peace after decades of war, bringing foreign investment which has helped to create impressive economic growth averaging 6-7% over the last 10 years. However, the problem is that while economic growth has been remarkable, it has not been fairly distributed. Rampant corruption and a culture of impunity weakens institutions and creates an environment where people will do what they must to survive, thereby destroying the social fabric of trust in people and institutions.
Over the last three weeks that pot has come to a boil with the convergence of grievances ranging from demands that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down, election reform, garment workers demanding a raise in their minimum wage from $80 to $160, moto bike drivers protesting the rise of gas prices, and land activists wanting fair compensation for Boeung Kak Lake evictions. These movements were operating on separate paths and just recently they are now coalescing under the umbrella of CNRP with massive marches that has not been seen in Cambodia in decades.
The government is at its tipping point standing stoically in front of these protestors on a daily basis and they have been restrained in the face of it all–compared to what we have seen in Thailand. Push them to far and who knows. The government remains at a standstill with the opposition still refusing to join.
My hope for the New Year is to see a peaceful resolution to the election impasse and the current social unrest, which right now is in a state of civility, for the time being. Whatever the result may be I recognize that I am a witness to history being made in Cambodia—where the tides are changing socially, economically and politically. For better or worse, who knows, but Cambodians have realized the country can’t go back to the status quo. The government has to take this as a wake up call and recognize that the people are demanding reform and demanding it now, with or without them.
My hope is that serious change will take place. Institutions need to be reformed to tackle the deep roots of corruption by creating mechanisms for more transparency. The rule of law needs to be strengthened to enforce accountability. Other issues such as increased protection of human rights, tackling the challenges of deforestation and land grabbing need to be addressed. The education system needs to be reformed to invest in the future of Cambodia. These are just a few examples.
I hope the current political stalemate resolves into a peaceful solution with a coalition government that can work together to address these issues. Because the other alternative—a power struggle between the two parties—will only end in violence and instability. We must learn the lessons from our history and be careful to not make the same mistakes.
My parents were a witness to history on April 17, 1975 when there was so much hope that change would come for the better, for a brief moment in time. But change too extreme, too far and too fast led to disastrous consequences. Whatever this new phase in our fragile democracy will bring, whom ever will be in power, I pray that change will be for the better and for peace because Cambodia has come too far to go back.
Tomorrow is 2014, the start of a new year, an opportunity for Cambodia to embark in a new chapter to strengthen democracy and rule of law, enhance economic growth and boost shared prosperity, and most of all repair the social fabric of our country to increase trust, respect and dignity among our brothers and sisters. We can prove to the world that Cambodia is capable of doing this without violence, without instability and to set an example for other countries to follow. This is my New Year's wish for Cambodia.