PHNOM PENH — In recent weeks the Cambodia government has cracked down on striking garment workers demanding a doubling of the minimum wage, as well as political opposition groups who accuse the ruling party of rigging the last election. Gatherings of protesters are now banned after clashes with police last week left four people dead and many more wounded. For insight into the significance of the conflict and the challenge it poses to Cambodia’s longtime leader Hun Sen, Rick Valenzuela spoke with Ou Virak. The longtime human rights activist and political analyst is President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent group working to promote civil and political rights in Cambodia.
Q: When was the last time there was this much outspoken dissent?
“Never seen before in the history of Cambodia, believe it or not. Particularly if you look at, Cambodia was either under the monarchy, absolute monarchy, French colony, even after that the brief periods of peace was not one of democracy, of real democracy. There’s a lot of crushing of dissent as well duing the 60s, 70s, and then we have the Khmer Rouge, the genocide regime, another communist state, another communist regime, 1993 elections that was brought by the U.N. was not sufficient. There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of violence, and because of that there’s not a lot of people willing to take to the streets. So this is actually very historical, and the fact that, I think, massive amount of people taking to the streets in such a level, such enthusiasm, cheerful, there’s a lot of positives to be taken from the past few months.”
Q: Why now, what is this moment? Why is there less fear?
“Well for one, it’s just demographic shift. We have the post-Khmer Rouge generation. These are people who were born in the 1980s, who haven’t lived much through the communist days. Many of these young people are more willing to challenge authority, willing to speak their mind. And young people are more ambitious.”
“But also I think that the demographic shift is also posing a challenge for the opposition, because the two main parties, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as well as the Cambodia National Rescue Party the opposition, both are generally ruled by old men. And they are out of touch with all these new developments. They got into politics a few decades ago. They treat the population in the same manner. There’s a lot of animosity between the two leaderships but nobody seems to be discussing solutions, and a way forward, and developing this country, and looking at policies that make sense.”
Q: On the opposite side of that, how about the state’s efforts to control dissent?
“It’s a new challenge. This government has not been challenged in such a massive scale for the past, at least, 10-15 years or so. If you look at it, it’s arguably ever. This government, particularly Hun Sen, has been in power for decades. He knows how to fight wars, he knows how to be in armed battles, but he doesn’t know how to respond to peaceful marches of regular people, regular citizens. “
Q: Cambodia’s culture is one that holds deep respect for elders. Isn’t it natural for the leaders of groups to be older?
“I think it needs to be addressed and we need to be honest. We have old men leading the parties. We have old men leading unions that are composed of mainly young women workers. I think that needs to be addressed.”