Cambodia: Engaging Generation-Z

February 25, 2016

H.E.Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen–For Cambodia

For someone like me who has been engaged directly with Cambodia since 1992 and monitoring its politics decades  ago as a young foreign service officer,  and now residing in Phnom Penh again from May 2015 as an academician with a premier university interacting with both undergraduate and postgraduate students, I am very optimistic about political and social developments here.

There is a serious attempt on the part of the Hun Sen government to address of the concerns of the Cambodian people especially the youth. Building bridges across generations involves promoting national consensus through common  appreciation of Cambodia’s proud history and rich culture and traditions founded on Buddhism, and building national resilience. The young tend forget the sacrifices and achievements of their forebears  and therefore there is a need to expose them to  the lessons of their country’s history.

On the economy, Chandara points out that “[O]ver the last five years, Cambodia’s GDP growth rate has been close to 7 per cent. The poverty rate declined from 53.2 per cent in 2004 to 17.7 per cent in 2012. While a new minimum wage of US$140 per month for garment workers has been effective since January 2016, salaries of civil servants, military forces and police have steadily grown and are expected to reach US$250 per month by 2018″.

Tax revenues are increasing enabling the government to invest education, healthcare and infrastructure. The economy continues to do well and there is peace and stability.This is only possible when the Government listens to its people and their problems and acts to resolve them.

The challenge for Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen and his Ministers is one of managing expectations. But there is no denying that since the return of peace in 1998, we can witness visible changes in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Largely as result of economic development, Cambodia is now on the path towards becoming a middle income country.

In talking to their economists and policy planners, I know that the government is investing in quality education and rebuilding its intellectual community which had been destroyed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and increasing productivity  has become top priority to enable the country to compete in the ASEAN Economic community. Everything takes time to complete. At least, we can be comforted  that the Cambodian government is making considerable progress in political and socio-economic reform for the betterment of its people. –Din Merican

Cambodia: Engaging Generation-Z

by Chandara Khun, Open Development Cambodia

Cambodia’s 2013 election was characterised by both the growing engagement of young voters and by numerous instances of collective violence. How will these developments impact Cambodian politics in the lead-up to the 2018 National Assembly election?

 Cambodian students hold balloons during a ceremony at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 9 November 2015. (AAP).

In December 2013, a sea of over 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest the election result and irregularities in the process. The election reduced the ruling Cambodia People’s Party’s (CPP) majority in the National Assembly from 90 to 68 seats, but supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed that the CPP only secured a majority through electoral fraud. The resulting demonstrations were followed by a deadly clash between protesters and police on Veng Sreng street.

According to the National Election Committee, 3.5 million out of the total 9.5 million registered voters in 2012 were aged between 18 and 30, representing 36 per cent of all voters. Some 1.5 million were the first-time voters.

While Cambodia’s youth will continue to play vital roles in electing and challenging their government, new ‘bandage’ policies have been introduced in an attempt to persuade young Cambodians in the lead-up to the 2018 National Assembly election. With the 2013 election results surprising the long-serving ruling party, reforms have been put in place to temporarily relieve the people’s hunger, give voters hope and silence the party’s critics.

Prime Minister Samdech Tech Hun Sen stays connected with Cambodian Youth

Over the last five years, Cambodia’s GDP growth rate has been close to 7 per cent. The poverty rate declined from 53.2 per cent in 2004 to 17.7 per cent in 2012. While a new minimum wage of US$140 per month for garment workers has been effective since January 2016, salaries of civil servants, military forces and police have steadily grown and are expected to reach US$250 per month by 2018.

Despite this, wide gaps between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, still exist. The World Bank cautioned that a significant share of Cambodia’s ‘near-poor’, comprising over 8.1 million people, remains vulnerable to ‘economic shocks’. For these Cambodians, a fall in income of just US$0.70 per day would push them into poverty, causing the country’s overall poverty rate to double to 40 per cent.

In the National Assembly’s 5th Mandate, the government seeks to give hope to Cambodia’s poor youth through reforms to education and other public goods. Under the new leadership of Dr Hang Chuon Naron, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYs) took steps to ensure bribe- and cheating-free exams for high school students. And it promised to build at least one public university in each of the country’s 24 provinces. Some new civil servants, military personnel and judges are now selected from Cambodia’s youth by nationwide exams monitored by the Anti-Corruption Unit, a government body established in 2010.

Yet there is no real hope that this young generation of civil servants will have a significant and lasting impact on the direction of policy. Allegations of nepotism abound in political parties and state institutions, while the children of farmers and workers remain marginalised.

In the aftermath of the election, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has learned to identify and censor his critics. In early 2015, one of Cambodia’s most controversial laws in recent years, the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organisations was promulgated.

The number of internet users in Cambodia has greatly increased in recent years and is expected to continue to do so in the years to come. There were 6.25 million internet users in 2015 and up to 9.5 million are expected by 2020, equivalent to 65 per cent of the country’s population. The government’s internet censorship has been ramped up accordingly, with the establishment of the Cyber War Team, the Law on Telecommunication and the soon-to-be Law on Cyber Crime.

There are no reliable legal frameworks for sustainable development and inclusive growth. The societal diseases of deforestation and illegal mining, land disputes and forced evacuation remain widespread. Though the ASEAN Economic Community has arrived, Cambodia does not yet have sufficient mechanisms in place to protect its domestic labour force or small local businesses. With such a young population and voter base, job creation, investment and support for start-ups should be at the centre of Cambodia’s political agenda — especially during election campaigns.

Instead of promoting freedom and human rights and strengthening state institutions, the government has made it harder for citizens to demand a representative and responsive government, whether through traditional media or social media. Those who wish to express (political) opinions publicly must be cautious or they risk facing criminal charges.

Facebook has become a government platform, complementing the parliament and the courts. Users voice their concerns, their demands are considered and justice may be granted by officials. The phenomenon has led to allegations of a ‘Facebook Council of Ministers’.

Though popular outcry has been temporarily relaxed, Cambodia’s volatility to collective violence remains worrisome in the absence of strong state institutions and national policies of inclusive growth. Despite their self-proclaimed top performance in the previous mandate, the future for the CPP in 2018 looks cloudy. Unlike their parents of the civil-war and genocide generations, Cambodian youth — a generation shaped by modern education and globalisation — will cast their votes based on a realistic appraisal of the government’s performance and actionable policies, instead of fears and one-time consolations.

Chandara Khun is an Editor-Researcher at Open Development Cambodia (ODC). The views expressed in this article are his personal views.

2 thoughts on “Cambodia: Engaging Generation-Z

  1. I am truly glad that you are enjoying yourself my friend. Keep up the good work and perhaps i’ll see you soon. Nothing like the youth to rejuvenate our weary souls eh?

    In a sense, Cambodia, after it’s traumatic recent past has a generation that is akin to our baby boomer generation, followed by a gen X. They haven’t reached the gen Y or Z, although they may be called millennial. Not that their development should be enforced ‘artificially’. Pubertal pain and adolescent rage must be tempered holistically and not be allowed to fester, otherwise we will end up with another ‘Ketuanan’ scenario. Marginalization and apartheid is not only stratified by colour but also by haves and have-nots. Cambodia is ‘fortunate’ in that the culture there is relatively egalitarian. It would not do to have Feudalism and all it’s negative manifestations rear it’s ugly head.

    Rapid industrialization or a parachute jump into the communication age has it’s disadvantages – with generations who become selfish and mercenary. The angst of a ‘young’ nation has to be handled with a steady, judicious but stout heart. Corruption, nepotism and cronyism will be the biggest challenges in any developing nation.

    Samdech Hun Sen has his weaknesses but he has remained a pragmatic leader who even without tertiary education, has more than enough intellect and emotional quotient. The important thing is that he knows his people well and respect must go both ways.

  2. Thanks, CLF. The pagoda boy is an icon. He is not afraid to surround himself with outstanding and young Cambodians including Phds. He reads a lot. Get in touch with me when you and Mrs are in Phnom Penh. I will be disappointed if you do not. –Din Merican

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