An article published in Phnom Penh Post.
By Kimkong Heng
Almost two-thirds of Cambodia’s population of 16 million people is under the age of 30, making the country one of the youngest in Southeast Asia.
These young people were born after the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled the country between 1975 and 1979.
Memories of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign were passed on to them by their family members, notably their parents and grandparents. However, there is a growing generation gap.
Born after the Khmer Rouge, young Cambodians do not have first-hand experience of the atrocities of the genocidal regime and therefore they tend to have little interest in it.
The Khmer Rouge, which lasted for nearly four years, killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in an effort to transform Cambodia into a utopian agrarian society.
After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam for a decade.
The country, with the support of the UN, had its first national election in 1993 and has since then held national elections every five years.
Politics has been an important and dominant feature of Cambodian society; however, Cambodian youth, aged between 15 and 30, are generally believed to pay scant attention to it.
Their engagement in politics has grown but seems to be highly seasonal. A number of obstacles prevent youth from actively engaging in politics in Cambodia.
Key among them are fear of getting into trouble, a rigid culture of hierarchy and obedience to authority, limited economic resources and education, and limited access to information among youth in rural Cambodia.
The 2013 Cambodian national elections saw an upsurge in youth political engagement and the power of young voters.
In December following the election, a crowd of over 100,000 demonstrators, many of whom were young people, took to the streets to protest the election result and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The same active political engagement was virtually absent in last year’s national election, perhaps because of the government’s crackdown on dissent and a clear understanding that greater involvement in politics carries greater risks, given Cambodia’s current political climate.
However, some analysts argue that Cambodian youth could become “key actors in halting the country’s democratic backsliding”.
As a recent study has shown, the activities of Cambodian youth on Facebook “have spilled over into formal politics”. Specifically, it was found that “the petty acts of discussing and sharing information on Facebook have, on occasion, succeeded in triggering changes in government decisions and behaviours”.
This study does have implications for Cambodian youth.
To effect change in the way the government leads and moves the country forward, youth and young people, who make up 65 per cent of Cambodia’s total population, should be more concerned about the country’s politics and increase their political engagement.
Although active participation in politics, be it formal or informal, is highly likely to pose risks for them, as the backbone of the nation and the future of Cambodia, youth have the responsibility to bring about meaningful reform and positive social change.
Their collective involvement and activism could mobilise and shape public opinion and may, directly or indirectly, exert some influence on the government’ reform policies.
As the aftermath of the 2013 election showed, the growing engagement of young voters in politics pressured the Cambodian government to pledge to carry out deep and comprehensive reforms.
As a result, Hun Sen reshuffled his cabinet by allowing some young and educated officials to lead several ministries, increased salaries for public servants, and raised minimum wages for garment factory workers.
To continue to exert influence and pressure on their government, Cambodian youth have to change their negative perception about politics and stop wishing the incumbent government to be responsible and responsive to the needs and aspirations of the Cambodian people, particularly youth themselves.
Instead, they have to closely follow political development, take part in offline and online youth activism, and voice their concerns through various channels available to them.
Facebooking is something that youth can capitalise on to be proactive and engaged in politics. Instead of participating or involving in formal organisations such as youth associations or civil society groups, which often brings them into direct confrontation with the authorities, Cambodian youth can take to Facebook to produce political effects and bring about changes in the government’s behaviours and decisions.
They can do so through online political activities, a form of political activism, by clicking “like” and “share” and commenting on various social and political issues circulating on Facebook.
These activities can be done spontaneously and may result in responses from the authorities or trigger changes in government decisions, if done in large numbers.
Considering the country’s present political situation, confronting the government physically is not a viable option for Cambodian youth.
Thus, using social media, particularly Facebook, as a platform for online activism seems to be, for the time being, the way forward for them due to its comparatively low-risk nature.
It is only when Cambodian youth are better informed of the political and social issues that matter to them and constructively engage, albeit virtually, with the government and other relevant actors will they be able to exert meaningful impact on government decisions and actions.
Cambodian youth are the agents of change and they have the power to make a difference as well as to hold the government accountable for its policies and actions.
However, if they continue to demonstrate a lack of awareness of the power they have, they are not going to make any difference in Cambodian society, but allow the government freedom to act unhindered.
Kimkong Heng is an Australia Awards Scholar and a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland.