Sam Rainsy, leader of Cambodia's main opposition party, knows that his political future lies in the towns and cities. A key reason is online connectivity. A recent report by the Asia Foundation found that 43.5% of 15 to 25 year olds were using the internet (compared to 8% of 40 to 65 year olds) and that smartphone usage in urban areas was double that of rural areas. Transpose this on to Cambodia's population figures (52% are under 25 years old) and it seems that the opposition leader has shrewdly predicted that online connectivity, a phenomenon the authorities are struggling to contain, has the potential to unlock the government's tight control of the media. The current ruling party and its leader, Hun Sen, have held power more or less since the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Since then, the party has overseen impressive economic growth. Yet this has been overshadowed by heavy-handed clampdowns on dissent that range from the intimidation of journalists to the banning of media outlets and opposition newspapers to, according to human rights organisations such as Licadho or ADHOC, the extra-judicial killings of community activists and labour union leaders. The residual effect has been to create a simmering discontent among the population, especially in the more savvy urban centres. It is in these centres that the new political battlegrounds are taking shape.
'Within seconds, information about an event can be spread to various networks' commented Eang Vuthy, Director of the NGO Equitable Cambodia. This ability for rapid communication is just one aspect of connectivity that is unnerving the government. This was underlined by a surprisingly shaky performance by the current rulers in the July 2013 elections, which led to protracted demonstrations in the capital. Using smartphones and simple apps such as Line and Viber, the demonstration leaders were able to convey information quickly to a wide number of people both within and outside the country.
At another NGO, I talked to My Sovann, the Media Project Manager for Urban Voice, which is a platform set up in 2012 to gather data about urban issues ranging from flooding to eviction threats. Urban Voice invites the general public to submit mini-reports online that are assessed and published in map-form on the website. The platform also includes information from partner organisations such as Engineers without Borders, who prepare technical reports on important urban issues such as drainage infrastructure in order to encourage the government to take action. This is one example of how technology is broadening the 'democratic window', but what is not so clear is how Cambodia's entrenched ruling politicians will react to this new force. They see the business opportunities of online connectivity and are therefore reticent to shut it down, but they remain unsure about how to domesticate the 'beast'. Cyber legislation has been shelved for the moment but will come, especially if connectivity leads to coordinated social action.
It appears that the authorities' ideal is a scenario in which connectivity leads to a mass 'fog' of information that drives the economy but quietly suppresses any political debate or questioning. This would mirror an approach by regional leaders such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew who, in the 1970s and 80s, offered robust economic infrastructure and stability in return for a neutered political opposition. In the Cambodian scenario, however, the population is being asked at each election to trade political acquiescence for a reheated patronage system fueled by a propensity among the ruling elite to strip the nation of its natural resources. It's an unedifying 'deal' that is clearly running out of currency, and the government faces a major task in 2018 when the country takes to the polls again. Where once Hun Sen was able to secure with rice handouts and gifts the votes he needed from a largely agrarian population, he is now beginning to look out of touch with a rapidly growing, young, urban and technological electorate.
In the meantime, the challenge to civil society will be to skilfully shape Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to advocacy needs. One leading character in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, is the Venerable Loun Sovath, known as the 'multi-media' monk. His local brand of non-violent action draws upon the work of Mahatma Gandhi, who used what he called 'Truth Force' (Satyagraha) as the means to overcoming British rule in India. Sovath's powerful action on sensitive issues such as forestry and land rights has won him many plaudits, but has also led to frequent attempts to 'disrobe' him from the monkhood by some of his peers. His advocacy builds on a prevailing sentiment that few in Cambodia have any appetite for a tumultuous 'Cambodian Spring' which would almost certainly lead to violence. What does exist is a hunger for a thawing of the age-old patronage system, which is sustained by nepotism and inefficient kleptocracy. A thawing would not mean overnight change, but rather gradual concessions by a government coming to the realisation that the future lies in its cities and with an urban population that can access information, do business and live with minimum interference. While no one doubts the scale of that challenge, it is a road to reform that would make Cambodia stand out from its peers — and potentially keep the ruling party in power.