Saturday, July 12, 2014

Young demand rise in living standards as Cambodia senses a political spring

A Cambodian land rights activist shouts slogans during a protest in front of the ministry of justice in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy /AFP

Guardian Weekly, Monday 24 February 2014 23.00 GMT

Opposition's hopes that prime minister Hun Sen may give in to some of their demands have not yet been realised

No one can tell what the outcome will be of the crisis that has been simmering for months in Cambodia. Demonstrations in Phnom Penh have been banned since 3 January, the day after the authorities brutally crushed a protest movement led by garment workers and supported by the opposition. Five people died, dozens were injured and many arrested. An unofficial state of emergency has restored a semblance of calm to the capital, but tension persists.

Stretched out in hammocks strung between trees in the city centre, the riot police are cat-napping, ready to intervene with boots and helmets to hand. However their presence doesn't prevent strikes in the economically vital textile industry.

The workers' main demand is a rise in the minimum wage, from $80 to $160 a month. The response from the garment manufacturers association and the government is that the industry cannot survive such a rise; instead the proposal is $100 this year with further increases staggered over the next three to five years.

The situation is deadlocked. The trade unions are sticking to their demand while opposition parties bide their time. "The prime minister, Hun Sen, holds the key. If he wants to open the door, he can do it. It's up to him to make political concessions and [introduce] genuine reforms. But for the time being, his attitude is still inflexible," says political analyst Kem Ley.

Since last summer Cambodia has been threatening to stage its "spring". Hun Sen, 61, has been prime minister for the past 29 years, and the Cambodian People's party (former Communist party) has monopolised the political arena for three years longer. Young people – two-thirds of the population are under 25 – do not see Hun Sen as the man who restored peace after the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) and ensuing Vietnamese occupation (1979-89), but as a symbol of nepotism and inequality.

There is widespread resentment about land-repossession orders that benefit foreign firms, massive deforestation and one-sided courts. In July 2013 the general election sounded a clear warning. The PPC won "only" 68 seats, with opposition leader Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue party (CNRP) taking 55. It was the worst result ever achieved by Hun Sen. The CNRP claimed there had been massive vote-rigging and called in vain for fresh elections. Since then the opposition has boycotted debates in parliament, paralysing political life and the economy as investors wait to see which way the wind will turn.

Ordinary Cambodians were stunned by the violence in January. Many pin their hopes on Rainsy, who returned to Phnom Penh last July, after years in exile, and was welcomed as a returning saviour.

Though popular with voters, the opposition leader is seen by the business community as a populist adventurer who plays on anti-Vietnamese resentment and endorses unrealistic demands such as a $160 minimum wage. "I'm pleased the opposition has made progress but even more so that they did not win. Their warning shot is stimulating for everyone," says industrialist Aith Ny.

Rainsy is a hero for the poorest people, such as the tuk-tuk drivers, and they say so quite openly. For the emerging middle classes the opposition leader embodies their hopes for democracy. "My staff are 100% in favour of Sam Rainsy. We all know it will be difficult to oust Hun Sen, but discontent is widespread. There are too many nouveaux riches, whereas extreme poverty is still with us," says Neth, a restaurant owner.

One thing is certain: Rainsy's return has loosened tongues. But is it enough for people to take to the streets in defiance of the state of emergency? Mobilisation has so far been intermittent. Can the regime mend its ways? Hun Sen has made the odd concession but has ducked any major reform.

Rainsy, on the other hand, believes that government and opposition can reach an agreement. "Hun Sen recently promised me an early election in January 2016," he said. "He even told me he wanted an amnesty law covering three people: the speaker in the national assembly, Heng Samrin; the head of the ruling party, Chea Sim; and himself. And he wants the opposition to demand this amnesty law. I see this as a sign he is seriously thinking about leaving."

At present, there is no certainty this will actually happen. The situation remains explosive, with a very young population, high unemployment, rampant corruption, a huge poverty gap, increasingly influential social networks and an authoritarian leader who has been in power for almost 30 years.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde

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