The views expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Globe.
Cambodia is now witnessing a crackdown on dissent of a level that is unprecedented in the country’s recent political history. In the current atmosphere of increasing repression, in-person youth engagement in politics and social issues seems to lead directly to immediate arrest and imprisonment.
As Cambodia is edging further towards a one-party state or an authoritarian regime, space for activism and freedom of expression has been severely undermined. No doubt, direct contact with the authorities is dangerous and can lead to arrest and other forms of punishment, as recent developments have shown.
But Cambodian youth represent the future, and as such they should not accept exclusion from governance. If they want to circumvent the challenges on the ground and build momentum for youth activism as seen in Thailand and elsewhere, young people in Cambodia may consider a deeper embrace of online activism as a safer way to express their concerns, mobilise support and make their voices heard.
In just the past few months, Cambodians have seen an increasing number of reported cases of harassment, arrest and detention. For example, in the first half of 2020, Human Rights Watch reported at least 15 people were arrested while 80 more were released on bail and could face re-arrest. Worse still, at least 24 activists have been arrested in a period of increased political protests following the 31 July detention of prominent union leader and government critic Rong Chhun, who was targeted after he made public comments about irregularities concerning the Cambodian border demarcation with Vietnam.
The state crackdown against peaceful demonstrations is a worrisome development that shows no sign of slowing down, especially given what information has been made public about the Public Order Law drafted by the Cambodian government. The proposal would aim to broadly manage behaviour in spaces deemed to be public, covering topics such as aesthetic value, sanitation, quietness, safety, order, and national tradition and dignity. One Article in particular, which would try to regulate how Cambodians can dress in public, has already drawn fierce criticism from rights campaigners, activists and youth.
Some of those activists launched a petition entitled Cambodia, please don’t oppress women’s rights through laws on the social cause platform Change.org. After two days, the number of signatures has reached more than 13,000. Now about 21,200 people, many of them youth, have signed on to show their opposition.
Activists may look to Thai youth. As neighbours, these two countries have many things in common; however, while Thai youth are stepping up to demand change in their society, Cambodian youth appear politically unengaged
The petition is a telling example of online activism. With the rise of social media, especially Facebook, Cambodian youth can adapt and engage in various online activities by organising and discussing political developments on the platform. These forms of virtual activism can be powerful and have led to policy change or adjustment in the past. For example, as a recent study investigating Cambodian youth’s everyday politics through Facebooking shows that online activism has, on occasion, “succeeded in triggering changes in government decisions and behaviours”.
It is worth noting that although online activism can still lead to arrest, especially when one makes comments on sensitive issues such as border disputes, corruption, the government’s poor performance and other critical issues like land grabbing, virtual activism provides a relatively safer avenue for social and political activism for Cambodians, especially youth.
They may look to Thai youth for a source of confidence and aspirations. As neighbours, these two countries have many things in common; however, while Thai youth are stepping up to demand change in their society, Cambodian youth appear to be politically unengaged, less proactive and subservient.
That must change if they are to demand positive changes in our society. Cambodian youth must keep themselves well-informed about political developments and situations in the country and increase their activism – as well as political engagement – to exert a positive influence on the government’ new initiatives and reform policies.
As the future of Cambodia, the youth generation cannot afford to disregard politics and the power of activism. They must seek opportunities to participate in various forms of activism, potentially through online activities such as sharing critical information on Facebook and Twitter and signing petitions to express their disagreement over certain policies or laws that are seemingly designed to restrict their rights and freedom.
They must be proactive and seek ways to exercise their rights and agency to produce positive changes that benefit their community and society. They can join petitions, engage in social media activism and involve in other forms of activism including peaceful demonstration, strikes and organising youth groups, associations or other alliances based on common vision or shared goals.
These are not without obstacles as the Cambodian government is now trying to monitor and prevent any forms of youth movement it believes would lead to mass protest and social chaos. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Cambodian youth can work as a team and create opportunities for collective voice and power that can enable them to achieve something that may not be achievable though individual forms of activism.
In fact, they must increase their engagement and activism in order to produce the change that they want to see. At the very least, they must step up their online activism. They can draw the experience of Thai youth to keep their patriotic conscience alive.
As the hope of the nation, Cambodian youth cannot afford to rest idly and take no interest in socio-political developments in their country and in the region. They must learn to exercise their agency, power, rights and freedom. They must do something to hold the authorities accountable for their actions and policies.
Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. All views expressed are his own.