There is no stage quite like Cambodia, where political elites double as divas and where the culture of political dialogue is reminiscent of a schoolchild spat.
Cambodia’s theatrical culture of antagonistic politics has been described as a “shame to the world” that has eroded any glimmer of healthy political dialogue between the two major parties, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian’s People Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The face of Cambodian politics has grown rife with ugly hostility and public disputes over the past several years, arousing headlines such as “PM Hun Sen expresses remorse about taking a selfie with opposition leader Sam Rainsy”, jabs from the CPP that “no one cares about the CNRP”, the CPP publicy ridiculing Rainsy for failing to measure up to Myanmar peace figure Aung San Suu Kyi, and Hun Sen re-sharing a Thai fortune teller’s status to his Facebook page, predicting the downfall of the “dishonest” CNRP. This incited the comical, official response from CNRP, “The fortune teller has a personal view that has no impact on the Cambodia National Rescue Party.”
Currently, Sam Rainsy is in self-exile after being stripped of parliamentary immunity and charged with defamation for comments stating the CPP Deputy Prime Minister, Nor Namhong, helped run a prison for the Khmer Rouge. Acting CNRP opposition leader, Kem Sokha, has been hiding in Pnom Penh CNRP headquarters for months after failing to appear in court over allegations of an affair with a 25-year-old hairdresser. The basis for these accusations stem from audio clips leaked online under a questionable Facebook account. The CNRP denies their authenticity and many remain suspicious that the days-old account was created as a political tactic to smother the opposition.
The ferocity of Cambodia’s politics has only grown worse with the proliferation of social media, as both parties battle to win over the 4.1 million Cambodians who have an online presence, amounting to roughly 25 per cent of the population. For perspective, there were just 6,000 Internet users in Cambodia 10 years ago. While much of the increase can be credited to the penetration of new technologies, it’s also important to note that the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge genocide means that 68 per cent of Cambodia’s population is under 30. Twenty-six per cent of Cambodians are between 14 and 30, an age perfectly ripe for political influence. A lack of well-established alternative media in Cambodia means Facebook provides the largest secondary platform for political influence.
This is something Hun Sen has perfected, a lesson learned after performing poorly in the 2013 elections where young, savvy opposition CNRP supporters rallied support online. Hun Sen’s public Facebook page boasts 5.6 million likes, and is flooded with constant photos and regular live-streams of himself interacting with the public.
In February, he made headlines for surpassing Sam Rainsy in Facebook popularity and even launched the Samdec Hun Sen phone app, which “offers news, photos and videos” featuring the Prime Minister and provides links to his Facebook page. Yet beyond the fun and festivities of his common-man approach to social media lie a sinister undertone. Late last year, Hun Sen announced that Cambodian Facebook users who criticise him or sensitive government issues will be traced, warning, “If I want to get you, I need less than seven hours.”
Interestingly, there is strong evidence that Hun Sen’s page has purchased likes, with a large proportion of accounts stemming from India and the Philippines. Hun Sen has denied this, instead stating he is flattered to have won over the Indian people.
This is not the first example in Cambodian history of spotlights for the elite leaving leadership blind to serious national issues. King Norodom Sihanouk, the extravagant monarch who reigned after independence in 1953, was famous for his obsession with producing films in which he often played the leading role. As the Vietnam War began to spill over to Cambodia’s borders, many Cambodians “saw Sihanouk’s preoccupation with films as an important symbol of his failure to address more serious issues,” a factor in seeing his overthrow and the Khmer Rouge gaining power in 1975.
Today, the average Cambodian suffers at the vanity of the elite. In a country plagued by corruption, poverty, political violence and the shadows of genocide, a political crisis fuelled by personality politics and repressing political competition has left the nation in deadlock.
This show cannot go on.
Mish Khan is a third-year Asian studies/law student, associate editor at New Mandala, and deputy editor at The Monsoon Project where this article was first published.